At precisely 6:00 a.m. the alarm clock rudely buzzes. Lori groans involuntarily as she fumbles for the switch to turn it off, then rolls on her back and forces her still-groggy mind to contemplate the day. Rain is softly pelting her window. Its gentle sound sparks a fast and furious flow of thoughts…
Oh, no. . . the last time it rained, there were traffic tie-ups all over the interstates. I won’t make it to work on time! Last week Madeline gave me the most hateful look for arriving a few minutes late. . . just my luck to have a boss who doesn’t like me! If there was ever a layoff at work, my name would be at the top of the list. And then how would I pay the mortgage? What would I tell the children? How would I feed them?
It’s now 6:03, and Lori is off to a great start with her worry habit. She began a brand-new day by successfully leaping from arriving to work a few minutes late to being downsized and applying for food stamps. No wonder she has headaches and is frequently irritable and exhausted!
After that strenuous mental workout-complete with fear, anxiety, and self-doubt-who wouldn’t be? Sound ridiculous? Of course it is. Sound familiar? Probably.
Worry is a familiar demon to most of us. It has even been referred to as today’s number one mental health disorder. Yet amazingly we seem to know little about worry. Perhaps with higher awareness we’d make better choices on how to approach this destructive habit positively.
Worry Is Physically Harmful
According to Dr. Charles Mayo, who helped found the Mayo Clinic, “Worry affects the circulation, heart, glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects the health. I’ve never known anyone who died of overwork, but I know many who died of worry. You can worry yourself to death, but you’ll never worry yourself into a long life.”
It takes precious energy to maintain a high anxiety level. This effort makes a chronic worrier significantly more vulnerable to physical and emotional consequences. Human beings were de- signed to have a “fight or flight” reaction to potentially harmful situations. Our ancestors often found themselves in highly stressful predicaments, such as the prospect of wild animals attacking them. In their case, worry often saved lives. The difference is their stress forced them to make quick decisions. Our reaction to stress was never meant to be a continuous state of mind.
Worry Is a Habit
We can easily get into the habit of hosting negative thoughts that allow our minds to wander without discipline or constructive direction. This is exactly what Lori permits herself to do every morning. It’s unlikely you would appreciate a friend concocting all the depressing scenarios that might result from being late to work. In fact, she probably would avoid a person who constantly told the worst things that could happen in her life. But why does she accept doing this to herself?
Keeping worry under control is an uphill battle for some more than others. For example, the worry habit is often more difficult to break for perfectionists with high expectations of themselves and others. Since worry indicates a feeling of powerlessness, worriers often have issues with control and rigidity that make it difficult to accept change. Type A individuals (those who are high achievers) are particularly susceptible to worry. So are people who witnessed the worry habit in action with their parents. Worry is often a learned behavior taught by role models who never gained control over anxiety.
Betty, a 67-year-old office manager and grandmother of five, struggled with worry years ago. Her worry habit became virtually unbearable when she experienced problems with a grandson who lived with her.
“I came to a point in my life where I realized I simply could not control the direction he took or the choices he made,” Betty said. “Unfortunately, the time it took to come to this realization took a significant toll on my emotional, physical, and mental welfare. It was during this crisis that I committed to redirecting my thoughts whenever they veered toward the negative. This restraint did not come immediately, but rather required ongoing discipline and resolve. I learned to accept the fact I could not influence every outcome. Furthermore, I was not responsible for the choices made by another person. My state of mind now is one of peace and vitality. I’m amazed at what a thief worry is, and my only regret is that I failed to master it sooner.”
Worry Is Ungodly
We are reluctant to view worry as a sin. Rather, we often minimize how distasteful it is, and even find humor in it. “Oh, you know, she’s just a worrier,” we say with a wink. How often have you heard other sins taken so lightly? “Don’t mind her; she’s just a thief.” Not often! God’s view of worry is clear. We should fear not what can destroy our body but rather what can destroy our soul (Matthew 10:28).
Excessive worry actually displays a lack of faith in our heavenly Father. God has made it abundantly clear He will watch over our needs. The Bible compares His concern to a loving father who would not dream of giving his child a stone when he is hungry (Matthew 7:9). God wants us to experience peaceful, joyful lives, not an existence full of turmoil and anxiety.
Making Worry Work for You
If excessive worry is physically and emotionally harmful, sinful, and an undesirable habit, what is it good for?
A proper degree of worry is healthy. It forces us to get organized and meet deadlines at work. It motivates us to exercise, eat properly, stop smoking, and lock our houses when we leave. Worry can tune up the small voice in our heads that nags at us to spend more time with our spouse and children, or take the car into the garage for a tune-up before it stops running. Do you see the difference between these and worrying about items you have no control over-such as whether a meteor will fly into your house or bad weather will ruin your vacation at the beach?
Dr. Michael A. Haberman, psychiatrist and president of Atlanta-based Southern Behavioral Health Services, says, “Although worry is normal and represents a natural mechanism to keep us aware of our environment, it can get out of hand and become unnecessary and excessive. This is then called anxiety, our most common emotional problem. Managing anxiety is important to a healthy life. If the anxiety is part of a mental disorder-10 percent of the population has an anxiety disorder-then we must get help to pull it under control so it does not wreak havoc in our lives. For the majority of people, however, mild anxiety is controllable through simple `emotional hygiene’ techniques such as being aware of tension, learning to relax muscles, not allowing negative thoughts to go unchallenged, and balancing your life in all its dimensions.”
Steering the worry habit into a positive direction involves being aware of areas you are prone to fret about, and developing a clear understanding of how much you can influence them. Write your top worries down and study them. This exercise will immediately bring them into clearer focus. Now ask yourself if you have any control over them. If not, you must train yourself to redirect worry thoughts the second they invade your mind.
“When counseling clients who suffer with worry,” counselor Anita Johnson, M.S., says, “we focus on addressing fears logically and systematically. Breaking down each issue, along with exploring options for resolving them, has a unique way of minimizing feelings of being overwhelmed.”
For those areas you can affect, commit to a game plan. For example, rather than worrying about having a heart attack, why not discipline yourself to convert your worry habit to an exercise and low-fat eating habit? Worried about your job security? Put that energy into gaining new skills to ensure you continue to be marketable. Sure, it takes effort. Then again, so does worry!
Retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Al Bonadies learned how to cope effectively with his tendency toward worry. “I used to worry about things far in advance,” Al says. “Then I learned to compartmentalize my concerns and focus on using the positives to overcome the negatives.” Al was the owner of an airport that experienced financial problems during the same time he was in the midst of a painful divorce.
“What got me through this dark period of my life was concentrating on what I had going for me, rather than dwelling on my misfortunes. Yes, I had financial problems. But I also had my health and an engineering degree to fall back on to regain my financial footing. Yes, I was soon to be divorced. But I had five wonderfully supportive children, my faith in God, and many loyal friends to help me through it. I have no doubt that my mind-set during this time helped me to survive it.”
And Now Back to Lori
How about our friend, Lori? What steps can she take toward facing her worries? To begin with, she could set her alarm to go off 15 minutes earlier. Daily worrying about being late to work is unnecessary and counterproductive. Rather than remain a “victim” to areas outside her control, such as traffic and weather, she can focus on the manner in which she prepares for such inevitable situations.
As for Lori’s paranoia about whether her boss, Madeline, likes her or not, this also can be dealt with constructively. She is obviously out of sync with her boss, and does not understand Madeline’s standards, moods, and feelings. Sure, it’s a two-way street, and Lori ultimately might not be able to achieve a good working relationship with Madeline. But if Lori has done her part and reached this understanding, she at least knows how legitimate her worries are-and what she might or might not be able to do about them.
If your worries persist even after you attempt to deal with them constructively, you may need to see a professional counselor. Life is too short to allow this habit to cripple and debilitate you. John 14:27 is a powerful scripture that illustrates what Jesus wishes for our lives.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”