Worry Less, Live More – Harriet Stack
Life is full of problems. Wouldn’t it be easier, wouldn’t we feel better, if we could just eliminate or solve all of our problems? Unfortunately, most of us eventually realise that some problems can’t be solved, some won’t go away, and even if they do, there are usually fresh, new ones just waiting to take their place.
What can we do about this? If life is full of problems and always will be, how can we feel peaceful, relaxed and happy? How can we enjoy life when there are always problems to worry about? My answer to that is to look at the process of worry itself. If you take part in conversations, watch television, read magazines or notice advertisements, you are receiving frequent messages telling you that worrying is inevitable, that if you have problems then you must worry about them. That the only way to relieve the discomfort of worry is to deal with the problems.
If we focus on worry as an activity, rather than the problems we worry about, however, we start to see how damaging that worry habit can be. I grew up worrying, and by the time I was in my forties I was really good at it. I worried about everything: things that had happened, things that were current problems, and things that might happen in the future. I really believed that I had no choice, that I had to worry. And the process of worry took over my life. It affected my health, my productivity and my relationships. People used to say to me, ‘don’t look so worried, it might never happen,’ and many of my conversations were peppered with the words, ‘I’m so worried about…’
Things started to change when a number of serious problems showed up in my life all at once. At first, I worried. Nothing got better so I worried more, and I felt worse and worse. Eventually, I reached a turning point where I realised I was either going to sink in a mire of worry, or swim, deal with the worry, and thrive despite my problems. I started looking for ways to solve my worry problem, rather than all my life circumstances, and very gradually I felt better.
Those serious circumstances, the problems, didn’t go away or get better, and I started to realise that my sense of wellbeing and joy bears no relation to the circumstances in my life. I can choose whether to worry or not, and therefore I am in control of how I feel regardless of what is going on around me. After a while I started to take notice of what I was doing that was helping me to worry less and I realised that gradually, gently, I had made small changes to my lifestyle that added up to a big shift.
Now, I have a name for that change. I call it ‘creating a worry-resilient lifestyle.’ In the past, I had tried various strategies in an effort to gain peace of mind, but I now realise that I needed a multi-faceted approach, helping me to change my mind, body, thinking, habits and surroundings. A lifestyle change. And it needed to be resilient because of course, every now and then worry does come. I don’t claim to be totally free of worry but I am resilient, so that if worry tries to take hold, I have the knowledge and skills to help me change direction, let those thoughts go, bounce back and continue to thrive.
One of my biggest lessons, and probably the one I share most frequently, is that we can’t think ourselves out of worry. If we are over-thinkers, professional-level worriers, we are good at thinking and analysing but usually, more thinking just breeds more worry. I needed to learn a lot about living in my whole body, not just my head, letting go of that compulsion to think and becoming much more present. The more I live in the here and now, the more peace of mind I have.
I used to believe I couldn’t control what went on in my head. Since childhood, my imagination had been very active and, as I got older, my thinking became more negative and fearful. I assumed I was stuck with it. Through a combination of yoga, regular meditation and simple exercises to replace my negative thoughts with something more pleasant, however, I found that I really could choose my thoughts. I also began to practise gratitude with renewed enthusiasm and vigour, and found out what a powerful tool it can be in the quest for mental discipline. The more aware we are of the freedom to choose what we think, and the more we practise choosing, the less we are prey to negative, even toxic, forms of thinking such as fear, resentment, regret, self-pity and people-pleasing.
Of course, we can’t just stop thinking. We need to know when to take action and when to accept what we cannot change. We also need to understand the difference between planning and worry. People often say to me, ‘I have to worry, otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done.’ They are confusing worry and planning. Being really aware of the difference between the two is a big step towards freedom from compulsive worrying.
Learning to worry a lot less is a powerful form of self-care, but it is also important to practise good self-care if we want to become worry-resilient. Having enough rest is crucial, and a healthy body and nurtured mind provide us with the ideal environment to put in place new, good habits. It’s also helpful to consider the community we belong to: are we part of toxic ‘worry groups’ or do our friends support us in our desire to make changes? Are we looking for sympathy or inspiration? Do we have access to professional advice and expert knowledge? These are great questions to consider if we want to ensure that our network supports us in building a worry-resilient lifestyle.
Perhaps the most surprising anti-worry strategy that I discovered is the importance of play and fun. When we are laughing, watching a sunset, engrossed in a film, splashing in the sea, or taking part in whatever our idea of real enjoyment happens to be, we tend to be truly present. We feel alive and we focus on the here and now. It’s the opposite of focussing on our problems but often, if serious things are going on around us, we forget how to have fun or we think it’s inappropriate. Nothing could be further from the truth! If we want to thrive despite the ups and downs of life, ensuring there is plenty of fun and laughter in our day will help to make us strong and resilient. Just try it: ask yourself what you love to do, or what makes you smile or laugh. Then ask yourself how often you make time for that activity. Try to build it into your daily life just a little more and see if it makes a difference. The sky won’t fall in if you enjoy yourself, whatever is wrong in your life, but it may just open the door to increased peace of mind and freedom.
I am passionate about sharing this: you do have a choice, you don’t have to worry, and letting go of worry can transform your life. A greater sense of freedom and peace of mind is within your grasp!