How Worry Takes Us Away from Our Lives — and What We Can Do About It

Mark Twain is quoted as saying: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” The more I observe the happenings of my own mind the more I see truth in this statement.

As I am writing this I’m waiting to find out the results of an MRI on my foot, to determine whether I have a stress fracture. I’ve been worrying now for a week, since I first injured it (after a run). I love to run and be active, and the thought of having to wear an orthopedic boot and be laid up for 6 weeks is making me anxious. To have this happen during the spring (my favorite season) when the weather is finally getting nice is adding to my upset.

And therein lie the fascinating workings of the mind!  I’ve been paying attention to my thinking a lot over this past week. When I’m meditating, my mind has found its way to worrying about my foot. When I’m walking around and feel some sensation in my foot, my mind likes to wander there as well. When I’m not feeling sensation in my foot I’m wondering about whether I have a stress fracture and hoping that I don’t. It’s been taking up a lot of space in my mind lately. But here is the most interesting part: All of my upset has been because of living in some anticipated future. My irritability, my bad mood at times, my worry have nothing to do with this present moment.

Each time I find myself experiencing anxiety or upset about my foot I check in and see what’s really happening. And each time I discover that I am in some mental rehearsal in my head, envisioning how much less fun I am going to have getting through the next 6 weeks without my beloved activities.

When I stop and bring myself back to what is actually happening right NOW, it is an opportunity to awaken. Right now I might be having a quiet, peaceful space to meditate, and save for my mind pulling me into my worry thoughts I am actually quite enjoying the space of this moment. Or I am sitting with my patients engaged in helping them, or perhaps I am having a dinner with my friends and enjoying the company and connection. The reality is, I am usually not miserable or anxious about what is happening right NOW. In fact, I have many meaningful moments to fill each day if I choose to rest my attention there.

Yet worry can take us away from our lives. And often, minor worries can consume more of our days than we may realize. (My next blog will elaborate on how we can manage bigger worries).

So this minor injury has been an opportunity to remind me to practice three things:

  1. To bring compassion to myself for whatever I am experiencing — I’m human after all, and the human mind worries.
  2.  To notice how much my thoughts (especially about anticipating the future) contribute to my unhappiness.
  3. To bring my attention back to what is happening right now, and choose where I want to focus my attention (rather than let my mind wander aimlessly in unhelpful ruminations).

This foot injury is seemingly minuscule in the grand scheme of life, but it has been a great opportunity to notice up close and personal the workings of my mind. (It turns out it isn’t a stress fracture, but another injury that requires some need for rest as well). But if it wasn’t this, it could easily be some other worry creeping in. Our minds tend to wander much of the time, often to the past or future, or to self-referential thinking. In fact, neuroscientists suggest that the default setting of our brain is in this mind-wandering state much of the time. Most of our ruminations do not serve us in any helpful way because this is the kind of thinking that can’t solve anything. But it can take us away from our lives.  

So the next time you find yourself caught up in mental ruminations, see if you might try the following:

  1. Name what you are feeling (i.e., I notice I’m feeling anxious, worried; AND this is difficult). Send some compassion to yourself. Notice the feeling but recognize that you are not the feeling (note the difference between “I am worried” vs. “I notice that I am experiencing worry in my body”). The noticing helps us to gain a bit of distance.
  2. Check and see if your discomfort/upset is about something happening right now, or something that may (or may not) happen in the future.
  3. If it is something upsetting right now, allow yourself to be with the feelings that are arising and choose wise actions to help you cope with what is happening. Do what you can to improve the situation. Practice self-compassion.
  4. If you are stuck in ruminations or unhelpful mental anticipation, notice that and choose to direct your attention to something in THIS moment. Notice what is OK about this moment and let your mind rest there (i.e., I am having lunch outside. The sunshine is warm on my face. I am enjoying this food that I prepared). Each time your mind gets pulled away, gently direct it back and ask yourself if you are OK in this moment. Choose to rest there. Even if this moment is filled with some emotional pain or challenge, it is easier to cope with right now/this moment/today rather than with now + everything that might happen in the future.

It isn’t easy to tame our worries, but being aware of the nature of our minds is a good first step. (Stay tuned for my next blog, which will suggest some ways to manage more intense worries that may grip us.)

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