Friday, 30 October 2020

How to be happy when you're a chronic worrier

I'm a chronic worrier. No matter how smooth or stress-free my life might be, I always have at least ten different things I worry about. 
Here are a few examples (this is an incomplete list) of what's in my head right now:

1. Petey got neutered last week. He's completely fine. But I still worry about his (alarmingly large) empty scrotum blowing in the wind. It really is shockingly big, and I worry about infection, injury, and him never forgiving us for the loss of his jewels. He was a bit standoffish the first few days and refused to come into the house, which hurt. But he's since come round and just spent a solid 3-hour nap on my bed. I think he's starting to consider forgiving us sometime in the future.

2. Winter. I always worry about the animals in the winter. We have winter quarters for the more fragile ones with heat, and shelter for everyone, so I know they're fine, but that doesn't diminish my anxiety. On the contrary, I have thoughts like: are they bored inside? They're used to frolicking and freedom. Do they miss summer? Is time crawling as slowly for them as it is for us during the interminable months of January and February?
3. Rich. I have an impressive list of items I'm anxious about when it comes to him, mostly about his health. There is his Lyme Disease of course, which is acting up right now due to the changing season. There is also the fact that he is old and could get a heart attack, stroke, dementia, Alzheimers ... I could go on, but I'll spare you. You get the drift - his health concerns me. 

For a while it got so bad that I would absolutely freak out when he had gone somewhere and didn't tell me, or came home later than expected. My overactive imagination conjured up the worst: him lying somewhere in the field after having had a heart attack. Him being in a horrific car accident. Him having fallen and broken a hip. Him having been attacked by an animal and slowly bleeding to death. I would start to hyperventilate, tears streaming down my face, unable to stop the horrific images of racing past my inner eyes. It became such a problem that I had to see a therapist about it, and she helped me a lot. We will get to that in a minute. 
 
4. Rich's mom. She is 87, broke her hip recently and lives in Germany. Anyone with elderly relatives knows that worry. 
5. The usual suspects: money, Covid-19, the future, the state of the world we live in, how horrible people treat animals and other people, the environment, my own health, my parents' health, and about a hundred other things.  

Let me stop here to highlight a huge win I've scored this year, mainly down to the tools I'll share with you in a moment. 
A few things I worried about excessively in the past are notably absent now. Can you guess what I'm talking about?

The most important one, and my biggest problem until this year has always been: other people. Neighbours, co-workers, friends, strangers on the internet, the unknown person on the other end of the phone - I fretted about them all. What they thought of me, if they liked me, if I made a fool of myself. For the very first time in my life, I do not care about that anymore. It is a life-changing, incredibly liberating feeling. One of my proudest accomplishments to date. 

The others have been off my mind for a few years now: obsessive thoughts about my appearance, weight and body. I won't get into it , because I've written about it in this postmy latest newsletter, and in a few more blog posts.
How did I manage that amazing feat?
I'll tell you. I have collected a number of tools that are helping me live a happy, mostly anxiety-free life. Of course, I will always have the tendency to worry about stuff; that's part of my make-up and what makes me me. It sucks, but what can you do; it's what my daddy gave me. If you can't fight it, embrace it. 

Here are my top five tricks that help me live with my Trelawney*-like brain: 

1. Therapy. That's where I learnt most of what I'm about to share. I was the most reluctant person in the world to go to therapy, but after imagining Rich dying hundreds of times during our 18 years together, I knew I had to seek help. I felt like I was going slowly mad. It has been truly life-changing. 
 
2. Don't believe everything you think. This is something that my therapist taught me right from the beginning. She pointed out that we have literally thousands of thoughts every day. Most of them we release without a second thought, never to trouble us again. What we focus our attention on is our choice. For example, before I zero in on the fact that Rich's truck is gone upon my arrival at home and start the scary movie in my head, I have to stop. 
Stop, take a deep  breath, and be conscious of what I'm about to do. Am I going to blindly believe every crazy scenario my active imagination is about to serve up? Why would I? It's based on zero fact. 

Instead, I channel that energy to focus on what's in front of me: the dogs who are happily greeting me; the dinner I want to cook that night; the book I was looking forward to reading after work; getting a half hour of yoga in to calm down my mind. 

There is nothing helpful nor beneficial in me conjuring up scary scenarios in my mind. Even if Rich would have been injured (an extremely unlikely event to happen), my worrying about it doesn't help anyone, not him, and least of all me. So I've learnt to be more critical with my own thoughts, and practiced letting go a lot this year. I'm pleased to report that it gets easier with practice!

* Divination teacher at Hogwarts who always predicts the worst. 
3. Most problems will solve themselves. That's something Rich likes to say. I even wrote about it in my first year of blogging, in this post: What Richard knows
Seven years after first writing about it, I can confidently report that this is, indeed, true. Many of the things we have worried about have either resolved, or they presented themselves as an actual problem that we found a solution for. Rich is a superb problem solver, and it turns out that I'm not half-bad either. The problem is not the problem; it's the worrying about what might be that is so exhausting. 

Every time I'm teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole, I remind myself that I've been there countless times before, and that 90% of my fretting was unnecessary. I can worry about the other 10% when they show up, and not before
Reminding myself of my successful history of having been able to resolve every problem that has presented itself thus far gives me some much-needed confidence and calm.  


4. Practice gratitude daily. I've talked about that one several times already, because it's such a big one. I believe that the world isn't black and white, but is made up of thousands of glorious shades of silver-grey. This means that whatever situation you find yourself in, you can always find a sparkling bit of silver, if you just look for it. It's a lot harder to be worried when you're grateful at the same time.

There are studies and intelligent articles about this phenomenon out there, but I can vouch for it straight from my own experience. You feel good about yourself when you're grateful. Gratitude makes you see and appreciate all the good in your life. And the best part? The more you train yourself to be grateful, the more automatic it becomes. If you do it often enough, it will become a reflex. Without thinking, your brain will go straight to the thankful part in any and all situations. It's a perfect antidote to constant worrying. 
5. Learn to love and trust yourself. My formerly (I still can't believe that I can say that now!) biggest worry was what other people thought about me. I carried that one around for all my life, all the way past my 40th birthday. Despite knowing at some level that it didn't matter what anybody else thought, I still cared. It still mattered to me. And to get past that, I had to get to the root of it first. 

It's something else I uncovered and unlearnt in therapy, and I won't go into the details, but the gist of it is that I was seeking approval from others because the person(s) I really wanted the approval from hadn't given it to me. Instead of dealing with that, I was looking for it in all the wrong places. 

I had to a) come to terms with that old wound, accept it and move on, and b) accept myself for who I am. When you love, trust and respect yourself, when you can embrace all your quirks and imperfections, then what others think of you becomes suddenly unimportant. It just - stops to matter. You stop thinking about it. It doesn't affect your life or your choices anymore. It's quite extraordinary! 
Having reached that point in my life is, as I said earlier, one of the biggest achievements of my life. 


There are a few other things I make a point of including in my life daily: laughter, hugs and kisses (animals and/or humans), finding humour in any situation, not badmouthing myself, treating myself with kindness, singing or dancing or jumping around. 
I look at the stars and mountains and trees, the deer and mountain sheep and bald eagles, and I'm reminded of how small and insignificant any one of us is in the grand scheme of the world. It helps to take the pressure off. We are all just tiny blips; not at all as important as we think we are. Our worries are the same: tiny blips, grains of sand in the endless desert.
Nothing to get too worked up about.  


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2 comments

  1. Love this, Miriam, and your previous post as well. Keep writing! : )

    ReplyDelete

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