(Installment #3 in a series)

When I was a kid, I was a bona-fide worry-wart.

Add to this the fact that I was a budding professional insomniac by age 7, and this guaranteed that the night before a big test, or an important school project, I would be laying in bed for hours and hours and hours with eyes so sanpaku that I could have auditioned for the part of mass-murderer in the 2nd grade pageant (of course, if I'd gotten the part, I would have laid awake for hours and hours and hours the night before the pageant, worrying about it).

On one such night, I wandered downstairs while my parents were watching Johnny Carson and announced that, since there was no way I was going to get to sleep ever, I should be allowed to stay up and watch the Tonight Show with them.

At which point, my dad gave me a piece of advice that, if advice could be worn out, would be nothing but bare shreds of advice by now (or perhaps, simply trace advice-residue), so often and so thoroughly have I applied it.
"If you're worried about something and it's keeping you awake, and there's something you can do about right now, then get up right now and do that something. If not, then remember that you've done all you can right now, and get a good night's sleep."
If I recall correctly, in that particular instance, the awful, haunting, worrisome thing was a Social Studies test, for which I had done all the studying I could have possibly done, so I went back upstairs and fell fast asleep.

Now, as regards Worrying being Shit Not To Do Because It Doesn't Work, I'm not going to hand you some simplistic "Don't Worry, Be Happy" shit.

I'm going to talk about the merits of refraining from -- or transforming -- Worry based on the original premise of this series -- that the best reason not to worry is that worry doesn't work -- it doesn't actually do anything.

Personally, I think that worry and guilt are two of the most useless pastimes in the world. (Sadly, this doesn't mean I don't engage in these useless pastimes.)

I do not even deign to call them "emotions", because I don't think that they are emotions. I think that they are mental exercises.

Worry is, essentially, a form of fear -- (for what's it's worth, I don't think that Fear is actually an emotion, either, but seriously, if this post is not going to be a nonillion characters long, we're just going to have to save Portly's Definitions of Real, True Emotions for another time, so bear with me for this one, 'K?)

My problem with worry is that, unless you actually harness it as a motivating force (which few people seem to do) I don't see what usefulness it has.

In fact, worry tends to be counterproductive for many (if not most) of us -- giving rise to a certain paralyzed, lethargic state in which the bulk of our energy is channeled into the worrying --and leaving very little energy left over for taking action.

I could go on and on about how this energy-misdirection results in the Worrier taking no action on the thing that's worrying them, thus deepening the cause for worry, but I won't.

Instead, I'm going to move directly into some suggestions about how to stop/refrain from/transform Worrying.

1) Part one of dad's advice has been very effective for me. If I'm laying awake at night worrying, and I can do something that would move the worrisome situation forward for me, I get up right then, and I do that something.

Sometimes, if this is in the middle of the night, this is drafting or even sending an email, sitting down to pay the bills (even if I don't have the money in the bank right at that moment, I actually write the checks out and show any negative balance to myself, so that I have an idea about the actuality of the problem, and have a goal to work toward), or typing out an imagined conversation that I can't actually have right at that moment (because that person would probably be pissed as hell if I called them at 3 am), but that I'm worried about having (this exercise often shows me what anticipated responses from the other person I'm worried about in the conversation).

2) If you're worried about something that you cannot do anything about right now, get that shit out of your head. Stop offering it massive real-estate in your brain. Easier said than done, you say? Well, of course -- but here are some tricks I use:
  • Make the "Oh-Shit-Oh-Fuck" list. When I'm truly worrying away about something over which I have absolutely no power (not that anyone might be having that problem right about now, I'm sure *ahem*), I actually follow my worry out on paper. I write down what I'm worried might happen -- I might write: "I'll lose my job". Then I ask the question: "Yeah, and then what?" -- which generally leads to something like: "Then I won't be able to pay my bills", or yours might be: "I'll lose my health benefits, and won't be able to pay for the medication I need". I ask again: "Yeah, and then what?" I follow those worries/fears down to the ultimate conclusion (which is usually something like "And then I'll die") to the greatest extent that I can. I put them on paper. If I discover some part of it that I can actually do something about, I write that on a to-do list. If not, I set the OSOF list aside, and if I come up with something else I'm worrying about, I add it to the list. Then, when the worries arise and seem about to eat me, I glance over at the list and think: "Yeah, I've heard that before" or "Oh -- hey! That's a new one! My! Aren't we creative!" *scribble, scribble scribble*. Sometimes, when I go to bed, I'll actually say: "Goodnight, list -- I know you'll probably still be here in the morning, but if not, sweet dreams!"
  • Talk to someone else about my worries (even small, seemingly ridiculous worries). Preferably someone who isn't likely to commiserate with me in the direction of more worrying.
  • Make a description of what's actually happening now in my life, and compare it to my worries list. Not as a way of negating the real concerns, or even the ridiculous worries, but as a way of balancing my perspective -- a way of saying: "Yes, I have this worry, and here's what's happening now".
These tricks seem to help me manage my worrying (and get some sleep). When I'm keeping my worries cooped up inside my brain, they tend to bounce off the walls with increasing speed and fury. Getting them metaphorically outside of my brain, while still acknowledging them, seems to be important for me.

For those of you who follow the idea that thought creates reality, and worry (oh no!) that these strategies will simply resonate the thing that you are worried about, well, this is how I look at it: The worry is already in my head. I can deny that and simply try to "think good thoughts", but I've found that that doesn't really work for me.

When I'm feeling worried, and I try to "talk myself down" with positive affirmations, it doesn't seem to work. I think that it's a way of "shushing" the worries, which just makes the worries more worried, because after all, if they were actually invalid, why would I shush them instead of simply hearing them out and saying "That's not a realistic concern" or "That's a completely valid concern and I'll do everything I can to address it"?

In my recent contemplations of the current economic situation (my own and the nation's/world's), I have come to the conclusion that, should it really all go to the worst kind of shit imaginable in a catastrophic, melt-downish manner that I have no control over, I would rather have spent this time feeling alive and engaged, rather than worried and paralyzed.

I'm not saying that you "shouldn't" worry, or that the worries people are entertaining are invalid or unreasonable -- I'm just questioning the effectiveness of turning a large amount of the rather formidable brain-power that exists amongst my friends and acquaintances to that activity.

I'm attempting to practice something other than worry because I've tried it before, and that shit does not work.

Your mileage may vary.

[cross-posted at Teh Portly Dyke]

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