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How to Handle Worry

A rational approach to the anxieties of life.

Key points

  • Ruminating is painful and usually unproductive.
  • It is useful to consider what we can and cannot change in our lives.
  • We will be less anxious once we can accept that the future is essentially uncertain.
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels

First, a disclosure: I worry. I worry a lot. If I were a superhero, I'd be Worry Man. I worry about important things and about the less important ones. But then, of course, we all worry. We worry about our careers, our children, our money, our relationships, and our health.

In my daily battles with worry, I find comfort in the following thoughts:

1. My tendency to foresee future horrors is in my biological blueprint.

Being a worrier isn't a personal failure or proof that any of those horrors will come to be. Humans have evolved to improve their chances of survival by anticipating dangers, so that they can be better avoided. The problem, of course, is that living in a state of constant anxiety is highly unpleasant, and in any case, many of those dangers may never materialize or may be unavoidable anyway, rendering all the unpleasant fretting futile. This issue, as I argue in my book, is one of the main obstacles we encounter in our pointless pursuit of happiness.

In fact, it has been suggested that evolution has taught us to ruminate because sometimes an extended rumination can reach a positive solution to a problem that wasn't obvious in the first few attempts to tackle it. This is one of those instances in which Nature favors a certain psychological strategy simply because sometimes it works, even if the process is unpleasant and very often unproductive.

2. Life is uncertain.

This is a fact. We can—and often do—foster fantasies about being in control of our lives, but every so often, a totally unforeseen event happens that proves that we weren't, in fact, in control of our destiny. As the saying goes, "Man plans and God laughs." It is possible, therefore, that while we are worrying about possibly horrible Event A and desperately trying to plan against it, fate may have decided that no such horrible event will happen, but instead, horrible Event B will, which we hadn't even considered for a moment—or perhaps nothing of note will happen after all. I do not include here the possibility of something positive happening, instead of horrible Event A, simply because sudden events tend to be negative. Good things happen steadily, over time, and not suddenly, with some rare exceptions.

A rational approach

Having accepted that our tendency to worry is an annoying feature that evolution has built into our minds, and that life is essentially unpredictable, the best approach to worry is a rational one: Is there anything we can realistically do to improve the problem? If so, let's design an action plan, but we should do this at a designated time we have agreed with ourselves, and certainly not in the middle of the night. Or perhaps the outcome we are worrying about is, in fact, out of our hands? If so, then the answer is obvious, and yet it is important to state it: We need to explicitly accept this fact and put the issue aside. Easier said than done, perhaps, but certainly worth trying.

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