This weekend I went to see the movie Bridge of Spies, a biopic about an American lawyer (James Donovan) recruited by the CIA during the cold war to negotiate a spy swap between the US and the Soviet Union. My filmmaker companion wasn’t wild about the movie, but the story is well worth knowing, and it got me thinking about how much we worry.
Abel, an elderly soviet spy caught in the US, was smack in the middle of a crisis, and while you could read his underlying emotions, he didn’t seem truly shaken by what was happening. Donovan asked him several times throughout the movie, “Don’t you worry about anything?” Abel always replied with a question of his own – “Would it help?”
I quietly nudged my companion, a notorious worrier, who often asks me how to stop worrying. It’s not that I never worry about anything, or that I don’t care. I absolutely do! I just choose not to worry unnecessarily about things I can’t control. Instead, I focus on what I can control.
It isn’t easy to stop worrying, but understanding a little more about why we do it and how it affects us can help.
We are genetically programmed to worry.
There was a time (like, caveman time) when worrying helped keep us alive. It was a protective instinct that helped early humans avoid danger, and it evolved with us. Cavemen that worried protected themselves and escaped danger more often. Those who didn’t worry at all – well, their fate wasn’t so secure. Guess who lived longer and reproduced, passing that tendency to worry down the line.
Fortunately, most of us aren’t concerned that we might be eaten these days. Instead, we worry about work deadlines, bills, bank statements, politics, our health, our family, etc. These are certainly valid things to be concerned about, but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors just by worrying, and here’s why:
Worrying can actually be really bad for you.
It’s inevitable to worry sometimes, but if you worry intensely and often, you don’t enjoy life as much and, in fact, you might even be shortening it. Excessive worrying affects your natural systems, causing your body to produce stress hormones, like cortisol, that increase blood sugar levels and triglycerides. To put it simply, this means the blood pumping through your anxious veins is supercharged with energy, but not the good kind.
Worrying can also affect your relationships, job performance, sleep, appetite, health, and it can lead to bad habits like overeating, smoking, and drinking.
Worrying does not make you productive or solve the problem.
Intense worrying can actually make you less productive. It’s a huge distraction and can leave you feeling completely paralyzed. Resist the urge to just sit there and worry – turn your anxious energy into action instead. If you can work toward fixing the problem you’re worrying about, even if that means only taking small steps in the right direction, do it! If you’re worrying about something you can’t fix, find a positive distraction. Doing something is better that nothing!
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Of course, some of the things we worry about are very real and important, but many of our concerns aren’t as significant as we think they are at the time. Put that theory to the test by trying to remember what you were worried about on this day last year. Chances are, you can’t even remember what you were worried about even six months ago. Worries come and go. Try to let them go sooner rather than later.
What should you do instead of worry?
Focus on what you can change or do. What can you put into action today that might help you later on?
Accept that there are some things you can’t control. Don’t dwell on those things.
Try to live in the moment! If you’re worrying about something in the future or in the past, you are not living the moment. Practice being exactly where you are in each moment.
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie Ten Boon