It is often said that we ought not to worry. In fact, this is far from the case, provided we ‘worry well’. Our brains thrive on being stretched and on finding solutions to difficulties. When we worry well, we engage both our higher intelligence and our innate creativity, which not only reduces stress but also gives us a sense of competence and achievement. So worrying well is good for you and is a skill we can all usefully cultivate.
Worrying well involves engaging, perhaps with a sense of curiosity, with a problem to see if we can do anything about it (and then taking action) or, if we can’t do anything about it, figuring out whether we need to change our reaction to it and then working on changing that reaction. Some people find it useful to use what is called a worry decision tree. Here it is:
At stage 1 of the process, you may be able to reframe the difficulty. It can often be the nature of the emotional brain, before it has been trained, to catastrophise or “awfulise” things. This type of use (or, more accurately, misuse) of the imagination amplifies difficulties and gets in the way of finding solutions. As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” If you notice this tendency, it can help to ask the following questions:
- What is the worst that could happen, realistically?
- What it the evidence for and against that happening?
- What is most likely to happen?
- What would you tell a friend in your situation?
- Will this matter in a week/a month/six months’/a year’s time?
- Is it actually worth spending my energy on worrying about this?
We can filter out a large number of things which are simply not worth investing our energy in worrying about, such as the unimportant or unlikely. This allows us to invest that energy in more helpful thoughts or activities.
You may remember the A.A. Milne stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and Pooh’s friend Piglet. Piglet was an inveterate worrier: “Supposing that…?” “What if…?” “Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” We are told that, after careful thought, Piglet was comforted by Pooh’s reply of “Supposing it didn’t?” I can’t resist mentioning another favourite reference from the same books, this time from Eeyore: “It's snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily. “So it is.” “And freezing.” “Is it?" “Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven't had an earthquake lately.”