For many of us, worrying is like a given. Everyone seems to do it, and almost no one questions it. Why, when it’s largely agreed-upon that worrying produces little or no value, do so many of us participate in this seemingly unproductive exercise?
To answer this question, we’ll need to define what we mean by the term ‘worrying.’ A simple definition I can offer is this: “Worrying is the combination of imagining an undesirable situation occurring at some point in the future, with the anxiety associated with that thought.”
Right away, we can agree that worrying is a voluntary action of entertaining the idea that, at some point in the future, there will exist a situation that we will experience as not only undesirable, but also as anxiety-producing.
Why, on earth would we do this? What purpose does this serve? One could argue that worrying is our way of making sure that we take steps to prepare for the future. In other words, if we are able to imagine an undesirable scenario at some point in the future, we might be able to prevent it from happening by taking some preventative actions in the present. This seems to be perfectly reasonable; however, what we are really talking about here is preparation, which does not need to include the anxiety that often comes with worry.
Getting back to the definition above, we see that the act of worrying involves imagining an undesirable situation. This, in and of itself, may not cause us to experience anxiety in the present; however, it often does. The key difference between worrying and simply thinking about the future, lies within our reaction to those thoughts in the present moment.
What happens when we worry, is that we “buy in” to the scenario, as if it were really going to happen. Our mind follows the thought, and in many ways, gets swept up by it. We find ourselves feeling as if we are also becoming swept up, our feet rising off the ground, our emotions running rampant. We respond to our imagined thoughts as if they were real. But of course, they are not.
How do we change this pattern? How do we direct our mind and body back into the present moment, where everything is okay–where we are safe? The answer is simple. We have only to remember that we have thoughts about the future because our mind is trying to help us. Our mind is presenting us with as many different scenarios as possible, as a way to make sure we are prepared for anything that could happen. When we acknowledge that our mind is simply trying to help us, but that not all of our thoughts about the future are valid–or even true, we place ourselves in the position of being able to choose which thoughts to follow, and which ones to experience as merely products of a busy mind.
One way to change your perspective with regard to various thoughts, is to imagine your mind as your helper, which it is. Rather than thinking of your thoughts as “my thoughts,” think of them as “my mind’s thoughts.” Think of the thoughts your mind produces as your mind’s way of trying to help you. After all, the main purpose of your mind is to help you solve problems. The mind seeks out problems to solve. When there is no apparent problem to solve, the mind often creates potential problems to solve. Worrying can be thought of as your mind presenting you with a potential problem to solve. When we experience worrisome thoughts from this perspective, it becomes quite clear that we have a choice to either follow the thought as if it were real, or to simply note the thought and remain grounded in the present moment.
Having an active mind is not a problem. In fact, it’s a blessing. The only way our thoughts can cause us to experience anxiety about the future, is for us to forget that not all of our thoughts are valid with regard to our lives in the present–or the future.
The next time you start experiencing worrisome thoughts, use it as an opportunity to see those thoughts as products of your creative mind. Celebrate the fact that your mind is so creative that it is able to imagine different scenarios occurring at some point in the future–even ones that might cause you anxiety. Do not try to suppress your thoughts. Do not fight your mind. Rather, acknowledge that your mind is simply trying to help you. Be grateful for having this creative resource at your disposal. Say “thank you” to your mind, for offering you so many options. When you do arrive at your imagined ‘point in the future,’ where you will need to make a decision, you will do what is needed with the tools you have at that time. This is all you have ever done–and all you will ever do. This is perfectly natural and all you can expect, since there is no way to address a ‘future problem’ in the present moment.
Meeting challenges does not have to involve feeling upset and powerless. To the contrary, working through challenges can be one of the most invigorating and satisfying things we do. When we are grounded in the present, worrying about the future, becomes a thing of the past.