Almost everyone says it’s hard for them to stop worrying. Have you ever had someone say to you, “Oh, stop worrying!” Did you ever find that helpful?” I didn’t think so! So let’s begin be talking about how it is worrying has us in its clutches. Then we can talk about letting go of it.
A big part of the problem is that it’s easy to feel that only stupid, clueless people don’t worry. People like Alfred E. Newman:
Dopes, right? We’re kind of like, hey, if you knew what was going on, you’d worry!
The other reason people feel good about worrying is that it gives them the illusion that they’re dealing with, or at least thinking about, their problems. Because, hey, they’re sure not ignoring them!
Well! Yes, you want to know what the deal is in your life and in the world. And of course you want to pay attention to the issues that are weighing on you.
But is worrying doing you any good? It may feel normal. It may be what everyone else is doing. It may be all you know. But does it work?
Think of it like this. Your heart doesn’t worry. It has a job to do: pumping oxygen-rich blood to your body, and carrying oxygen-depleted blood away from your body. If you’re healthy, your heart—God bless it—spends 100% of its time doing just that.
Well, in the same way, your brain should be spending 100% of its time separating real from imaginary problems and then solving the real problems or, if not solving them, bring you to a better place—more peaceful, more hopeful, less stressed out—with respect to those problems.
Instead, what do we actually do when we worry? Anything productive? Come on! I’ve spent more than my share of time worrying, and I’ve listened for hours to people share not just their worries but their actual worrying process with me. So let’s not kid ourselves. You and I know that worrying is mostly just paper shuffling.
What most of us do most of the time when we worry is pick through the pieces of the problems that distress us and, unless we somehow by a miracle suddenly find a solution, we get frustrated and stressed and anxious, and then when we can’t take it we move on to another piece of the whole scary mess and do the same thing. It’s like finding yourself knee-deep in mud and then trying to get rid of the mud by rolling around in it.
Besides the fact that we know that it’s what everyone else does and that it’s all we know to do, there’s one more thing that keeps us worrying. It’s the Principle of Intermittent Re-enforcement.
Here’s how that works. Suppose you wanted to build a machine that would get people to put money in it without having to give them anything back? A vending machine that doesn’t vend anything. Who in the world would ever put even a nickel in such a machine, right? Wrong! Suppose, evil genius that you were, you rewarded the person for putting nickels in every once in a while by giving them a whole bunch of nickels, just enough so they’d say, “Wow! Look at all those nickels!!” If you did that just often enough so that you kept 4 nickels for every nickel you gave back, people would break the door down to put nickels in your machine.
Well, you’d have just invented the entire gaming industry. If you intermittently (occasionally) re-enforce (reward) people for doing something that’s actually a net loss for them, they’ll keep doing it anyway. The entire gaming industry proves this, as do so many other aspects of human life, including worrying.
If you worry long enough, every once in a while you’ll have a bright idea. True! Just the way if you ask strangers on the street to give you money, every once in a while someone will give you some money. It works, but you’re not going to earn a living wage.
Worrying is just as unproductive.
Now if you’re worried that I’m going to leave you high and dry, please! You know me better than that!! In our next post, I’ll show you how to make worry time something way more satisfying and productive.
For now, I’ll leave you with this. They’ve studied how many of the things we worry about actually happen at all. In one study, 91% of the things the people worried about didn’t come true. In another study...well, let me just quote:
85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.
So there. See you next time with solutions for getting rid of worrying.