Worry as Habit

We all reach a certain age where we start to worry. We worry about our finances, our children, our future. We fret over real and imagined disasters like our plane crashing or worldwide economic and political turmoil. We worry about someone not liking us. We worry about the embarrassing thing we did or said the night before. We worry about all the things we still have to do and worry we wont have anything to do. We worry about the mundane and the extraordinary.  We worry about 1001 things during the day and we do it so often it becomes second nature. We think worry is just a natural part of growing up, like paying taxes and having a job.

This is not so. Worry is a habit, like getting up early is a habit. It is something that you learn to do and so it is something that you can chang. Below are a some of the best ideas and strategies to stop the worry habit that I took from Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.[2]

Proposition # 1 - Worry is a mental habit.

Baby - I got 99 problems....

Hakuna Matata ?

Zen Masters & 5 Year Olds

Before I used to think of someone with no worries as someone who had no responsibilities, like a stereotypical surfer. That image evolved and deepened over the years and I eventually came to see someone with no worries as someone who was completely alive to the moment. But even then I thought that was a feat only a zen master or a 5-year-old could do. That is, somebody who is innocent, like a young child or someone who through rigorous training had taught themselves to live mindfuly.

If Zen masters and children don't worry, like the rest of us. Is it because they have learned to live in the moment and thus don't worry ? Or is it because they don't worry and  thus they live fully in the moment ? At first glance this might seem like a "what came first the chicken or the egg?" type of question.  But that argument has no point, this one does. If the zen master and the child don't worry and therefore they live fully in the moment AND if worry is a just a mental habit THEN if we learn to stop worrying can we also learn to live fully in the moment ?

Proposition # 2 - Learning to Stop the Worry Habit will create mindfulness of the present.


Baby Monk

Fear vs Worry

The first step in dropping the worry habit is recognizing that there is  difference between the emotion known as fear and the mental habit known as worry. They often times get confused. Fear is a primal force like hunger and like hunger it has a purpose. Whereas hunger prods us to feed the body and sustain life fear seeks to help us avoid danger and thus protect the body from harm.  It still serves that purpose today. Worry is to fear what potato chips are to potato soup. It is just empty calories that have no nutritious value. It is  important to distinguish between fear and worry. The former resides squarely in the gut. The latter flits around our head.  One serves to preserve our life the other is a parasite that weakens us.[1] 

Proposition # 3 - Fear is good. Worry is bad. Learn to tell the difference.

How to Tell the difference between Fear and Worry

True fear like true hunger is firmly grounded in the real world. That is to say when you feel true hunger it is because your belly is empty, nothing more nothing less. The same goes for fear. Real fear, the fear that saves your life, is your intuition latching on to some very important detail in the real world that your conscious mind has yet to  acknowledge. It is mindfulness at it most acute state. It is specific to a cause,  a little red flag planted by your subconscious telling you to  pay close attention and beware.  It is immediate, it is visceral and like authentic hunger, it does not hang around once its job is done.

Worry is your brain making stuff up.

Worry is the boogeyman. It has no basis in the real world and falls apart under closer inspection.


Boogey Man

Step 1 - Define the Boogeyman, Defeat the Boogeyman

The first step in dropping the worry habit is to define your worries. By define them I mean sit down and write them out in stark detail. Many times even this first step goes along way towards breaking the shackles it has on us. Worry works best when it is undefined. By setting it down on paper you can get your arms around it. You will find that the same mind that before had created an army of goblins all of sudden turns into a wonderous machine capable of generating solution after solution. Solutions that before you hadn't even dreamed of because you were to busy worrying


Step 2 - Get Busy

As I mentioned before your mind is superb at generating ideas & fears. What it cannot do is more than one thing at a time. Mr. Carnegie has an interesting way of illustrating this point he states :

-lean back right now, close your eyes, and try , at the same time , to think of the Statue of Liberty and of what you plan to do tomorrow morning. (Go ahead, try it).[2]

You will find that you might be able to alternate between the two but it is impossible to sustain both trains of thought simultaneously. This trick is akin to solving the weed problem in your garden by planting every square inch of it with something so there is literally no space for the weeds to grow. This is a very effective way of dealing with worry. Here is a tip the activity you choose has to require enough mental input that there is not enough space left to worry. So for example you may find that cleaning the house, while keeping you busy, doesn't engage enough of your mind to keep you from worrying. 


A word about excercise

Exercise is an excellent tool to use against worry. Physical exertion is a great way to burn up all that frustrated, directionless energy that worry often conjures  up within us. Especially if you do it later in the day so you will be exhausted by the time you go to sleep. I have friend who lost his job recently and had to move in with his in-laws for a while. To keep his sanity he set up a punching bag in the garage and would work it over sometimes until his knuckles bled. He would do this on a set schedule often times early in the morning when he knew he'd be left alone. Then he would continue with his day having released some of the tension he was feeling.





Step 3 - How to Banish Fatigue

The little cousin of worry

Fatigue and worry come hand in hand. Dale Carnegie has an interesting point in his book about fatigue.  He writes mental work alone can't make us tired (p 211). Furthermore he declares that scientist had discovered that when they measured the blood flowing through the brain after a certain period of sustained activity it showed none of the build up of toxins the way blood in muscles does . Theoretically therefore the brain was tireless. It could perform as swiftly at the end of eight hours as it could at the end of twelve. Apparently the real cause of mental fatigue is mental and emotional attitudes. [2] 

Hard work by itself  seldom causes fatigue which cannot be cured by a good sleep - Worry, tenseness, and emotional upset are three of the biggest causes of fatigue.( p 212)


Tension to is a habit according to Mr. Carnegie. He proposes we replace the a bit of tenseness with the habit of relaxation. You can accomplish this simply by making it a habit to 

(a) Work always with an eye toward comfortable posture

(b) Taking frequent rests throughout the day. Even a small period of rest will do a lot to renew your reservoirs. A person who rests 10 minutes out of every hour will actually be more productive than a person who works through the hour. Frederick Taylor, a scientific management engineer, at Bethlehem Steel Co. demonstrated this by having his test subject carry 4 times more pig iron than the control group simply by having him sit and take frequent rests.

(c) Relax at odd moments throughout the day. Carnegie calls it going limp like an old sock we would call it progressive muscle relaxation. Same difference.


A Day of Worry

Prayer as a practical tool

It is in style now a day to meditate as tool to deal with stress of modern life.  Its been divorced from its origins as a spiritual practice into something more utilitarian. Mr. Carnegie proposes the same thing for prayer. A form of talking meditation to deal with worry.

 "- even if you are an out-and-out skeptic  - prayer can help you much more than you believe, for it is a practical thing." (emphasis his) (p 187) [2]


What does he mean by prayer as a practical thing ? Prayer is :

1) Putting into words exactly what is troubling you

2) Gives a sense of unburdening yourself, of not being alone.

3) Prayer is the first step towards action.

The Big Picture & Worry

Despite his assertion that prayer is a utilitarian thing Mr. Carnegie  acknowledges the need to connect to something bigger, something that instills purpose in your life as the best solution for worry. This doesn't, in my opinion, necessarily imply religion. As Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and Author of Man's Search for Meaning stated  "The salvation of man is through love and in love."[3] Sometimes focusing on the one you love has the same effect as finding God. It reminds you that you are not alone.


Monk and Baby