Category Archives: Psychology

Wish for a Better Future

wishing-well

We make wishes all the time: at 11:11, when we blow out our birthday candles, when we find a fallen eyelash, when we throw a coin into a well. It is part of human nature. Wishes can be wonderfully optimistic, but they can also be reflections of disappointment or regret about the past rather than optimism about the future. They are wishes such as “If only I had known…” or “If only I had or had not…” or “I wish I could have done things differently”. These are wishes that keep us anchored to unpleasant experiences, rather than inspire a future propelled by what our experiences have taught us. In other words, when we wish that we could have done things differently, our focus is on what we have already done rather than on what we will do going forward.

We’ve all said some variation of “if only”. For example:

(1) “If only I had known how angry she would get, I would not have mentioned ____ today. I would have waited until she was in a better mood.”

(2) “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago.”

(3) “If only I had not gone to bed so late, I would have been able to do better on the test/job I was assigned.”

(4) “If only I had been more attentive, she would still be dating me.”

(5) “If only I had known that the company was going to go out of business I would have started looking for work months ago.”

(6) “If I had known that today was the last time I would see him, I would have said I loved him when he left for work. I wish that had been the last thing I said.”

In these “if only” scenarios, we tend to use information that was not available at the time we made our decision. This newly available information suddenly becomes a basis for evaluating the merits of our past decision.

However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our decisions in the moment are based on how one sees the situation at that time. Why avoid mentioning something if you think the person is in a good mood? If you trust someone, why break up with him/her? If you think the next day will be routine, what is the harm in staying up late? If you think you are making someone happy, why change the way you treat them? If you are happy in your job and have no information on the financial position of the company, why change jobs? Did the person know you love them, even though the words were not spoken that morning?

It is often hard to remember the factors that influenced our decision at the time and the consequences of our decisions are sometimes so upsetting to us that we search for how we could have avoided them. It is as if the newly available information is so compelling that it “demands” that we use it as a way of evaluating the merits of our past actions. It is almost as if we get stuck in the wish that things could have been different and in searching for a way to change the past, we wind up turning our back on our future.

I have talked to so many people who ask over and over why they have done something. Why was I so quiet/talkative/sensitive/insensitive/pushy/obedient? These statements are really all variations of “I wish I were different” and the ultimate quest is to find the reason for one’s behavior, the one thing that could have changed it all. While it is important to reflect upon our past actions and learn from those actions, wishing we could change the past does little to foster that learning.

When the statements we make move from the past (“I wish I were”) to the future (“I want to be”), the potential for learning from the past is increased and the potential for change in the future is enhanced.

It seems to me that in order to truly learn from the past, and move on from it, we need to focus on the evidence we collected at the time. Asking ourselves why we behaved a certain way (rather than wishing we had behaved differently) allows us to carefully examine that evidence and determine what we may have overemphasized and what we may have overlooked. Most of the time, we seek confirming evidence, that is, evidence that supports our hypothesis. If we love someone, we look for evidence of their goodness; if we dislike someone, we look for evidence of their meanness. In doing so, we emphasize the evidence that supports or confirms our view. This is a valuable and important part of decision-making and evidence collection. However, if we overemphasize the confirming evidence, we may fail to consider evidence that disconfirms our view. A parent may say, for example, “My kids are great!”. They then seek and find confirming evidence (good grades, politeness) but overlook disconfirming evidence (they are in their room studying and cutting themselves because they are depressed or anxious).

The collection of confirming and disconfirming evidence is important to effective decision-making but to truly learn from the past, the other question we must ask ourselves is “How do I want to behave next time?” This clearly shifts the focus from the past –which we cannot change – to the future, where we can change how we behave. Wishing we could have been more attentive will not bring back the person we were dating; however, being more attentive to those who are in our lives or who will come into our lives can enrich our relationships going forward. Saying, “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago” does not help one move forward; it keeps one focused on the pain of the past and the uncertainty of the future. This particular statement also points to the inherent irrationality of using today’s information for yesterday’s decision. That is, at the moment, the relationship was good so there was no reason to break up. If one had had the information, then – and only then – does breaking up begin to make sense. Again, reviewing the confirming and disconfirming evidence one used as a basis for trust is useful; focusing our energy on wishing we had done things differently does little to help one learn from the past and does even less to help one move toward a brighter future.

My wish for you is that you make your wishes dreams that can come true, and not lists of past regrets that cannot be changed.

“Do you know why a car’s windshield is so large and the rear view mirror is so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So, look ahead and move on.” – Unknown

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

First Day of School Jitters

I think we can all remember the anticipation of a new school year. The excitement of beginning anew, the anticipation of seeing old friends or meeting new ones, waiting for the letter that tells us what homeroom we are in and who our teacher would be. I think we can also all remember the jitters before school as well – the butterflies in our stomach, the dread of not having any friends in our class or not meeting new ones, the fear that our teacher would be the “awful” one, and the fear that this would be the worst year of our life.

What we need to keep in mind is that although we know that it will all be OK (because somehow we survived school), we need to keep in mind that our children do not know this. For them, the anxiety is real and our job is to keep it at a healthy level – a level where it motivates them to do their best, to rise to a challenge, and to pursue personal growth. When anxiety moves beyond the healthy level, the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. Personal growth is replaced by sleepless nights, upset stomachs, poor concentration, and the development of separation fears. To help us remember what they are feeling, it is important that we remember that the feelings, thoughts, and anxieties that the children have on the first day of school are really the same as those we feel on the first day of college or the first day of a new job, or even the anxiety we feel upon the return to our “established” position after a vacation. We manage these jitters because our past experiences with this type of anxiety have inoculated us, making us better able to withstand it. Children don’t have the multitude of experiences we have so they cannot call upon them as evidence that this situation will work out okay too. So, what can we do?

As parents, we can:

  • Familiarize them with the environment they will be in. Take advantage of opportunities that the school district provides where children can go into the building and look around. Familiarity eases anxiety. For young children, it is learning where things are, how to find their room, or what their teacher looks like. For middle school children, it is learning how to use the lock on the locker. For teens, it is knowing where their friends will be, who they will have lunch with, who will have study hall with them.
  • Give them a sense of control. Let them know that you believe in their ability to handle the situation and give them strategies for doing so. If they are worried about whether you will forget to meet them at the bus stop after school, reassure them that you will be there and then let them know what to do in case you are not. Let them know they are safe so they feel in control.
  • Give them a sense of predictability. Let them know what the schedule will be like. This is important at every age. The kindergarten child wants to know what they will do when they walk in the room and what will happen after that. The tween and teen wants to know what “specials” are on each day, what after school activities they will have each day, and when the school vacations will be.
  • Understand that as school becomes more imminent, their anxiety about it will increase. So, we need to prepare beforehand so that the night before is as stress-free as possible. Make sure all the items your child needs are available and put in the backpack so there is no last minute uncertainty about whether they will be “in trouble” for not being prepared. (Getting things ready beforehand also relates to giving them a sense of control and increasing the predictability that the first interaction with the teacher will be a positive one).
  • Help them reframe their anxiety. While my own children would get so frustrated with me when I said this, it is still one of my favorite phrases – and one I have all of my students repeat before an exam – “I’m not worried, I’m excited!” Of course, they do not feel excited at the moment and it seems to be negating their reality, but, anxiety and excitement have the same physiological effect on our body; they both activate our fight/flight system. The label we give that physical event, however, changes our reaction to that physiology. So, excitement raises our belief that the situation will turn out positively, while nervousness makes us focus on how we need to protect ourselves from what is about to happen. The focus changes the strategies we use in the situation and excitement leads to better strategies for handling the jitters we feel. If they are worried because last year was a tough one for them, reframe it as “This year is a new year”; remind them of the other positive changes that have happened and help them build on that (i.e. they can now tie their own shoes, or drive their own cars). Help them to understand that if some things have changed, school can too.
  • Recognize that as school becomes more imminent, your own anxiety will increase. We need to handle our worries so they do not increase our children’s worries. If you are worried about their safety in school, talk to school administrators about it. If you are worried about their academic preparation, reach out to the teacher and find out about the support systems that are available. Most teachers offer after-school help and in many states, the American Federation of Teachers has a homework helpline that can be a wonderful resource.  If you are worried that your schedule is tight and you may miss their bus drop-off or pick-up, then contact the PTA and ask if there are other parents with that concern and form a committee to help each other. If you are worried about the “bad influences” out there, remind yourself that while peer influences increase as our children get older, our influence is never wiped out. If you stay emotionally connected to your kids, they will hear your advice even when you are not there to give it.
  • You may experience separation anxiety. If you feel the separation anxiety, if you feel that sense that time is moving too quickly and your “baby” is gone, remember that every phase of life brings its joy, and this will too. Recognizing the joy in the moment allows us to form beautiful memories of the past and positive hopes for the future. I always find comfort in the idea that growing up does not mean they will not need us; it means they will need us differently.

If you happen to be a teacher and you are reading this, there are, of course, things you can do as well to reduce your students’ anxiety. You can have a welcome note on their desks when they arrive so that they immediately know they are joining the community of your classroom, a place where you will treat each other with respect. Invite them to write you back so you can learn more about them. Have a week of changing seats rather than assigned seats this way you can see the dynamics among the various students and they can realize that the potential for their social group is larger than the few people who sit near them. Have everyone say only their name on a daily basis for the first week so everyone learns names – and the shy students practice speaking without feeling any anxiety about what they have to say or remember (such as trying to remember all the names that have already been said – a task that terrifies many students). Talk to your colleagues about other class community bonding activities they utilize so that you can further ease your students’ beginning of the year anxiety.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a student, a new school year brings new anxieties. I imagine that even reading these strategies caused some anxiety. Anxiety lessens, but never disappears – and that is a good thing because at a healthy level, anxiety helps us grow. So, remember what I said – every time we are anxious, it inoculates us from future anxiety. While we may experience jitters in a variety of settings over our lifetime, the jitters do get less. The anxiety decreases and the anticipation/excitement increases. Our coping skills improve because we increase our experiences and are able to apply the knowledge gained to other situations.

I hope these strategies will help you to enjoy the coming school year or whatever new situation you face. Keep in mind the best advice I know for handling a new experience:

“You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way” -Dr. Seuss

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

You’ve Got to Be Taught to Hate and Fear

Over the last few days, I have heard random people list their hatreds. People hate (insert food). They hate (insert weather). They hate (insert animal).   They hate (insert political candidate/person). They hate (insert religion). They hate (insert ethic/cultural group). They hate (insert sexual orientation). They hate (insert occupation). “Hate” is an incredibly strong word and while it may seem okay to use it when describing momentary discomforts (like the weather) or preferences (such as one food versus another), the word has much more significance when used to describe characteristics that one cannot choose (such as place of birth) or the core values of others (like religion).

Every time I hear the word, I think of a song from the musical “South Pacific”. The musical is set during World War II, a tumultuous time that defined my parents’ youth and early adulthood. My father fought in the war. My mother watched her brothers, cousins, and friends go to war. So, the musical (and its lessons) stuck with me.  One song in particular declared, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8…. You’ve got to be carefully taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). I grew to understand that hate was a strong word, a word that caused “terrible things” and I carried this lesson into my professional understanding of hatred.

Psychologically speaking, hate and fear do go together. They are both emotions and as such, they are both physiologically based. They are set in motion by the hypothalamus and trigger our autonomic and endocrine systems to activate. In essence, they both involve the arousal of our “fight or flight” response. Our respiration changes, our perspiration changes, our muscle tension changes, our digestion is impacted. They also both have a cognitive or learned component that helps us cope with the “fight or flight” response. The physiological responses are similar: the cognitive element is based on how we define the situation we are in, and the definition is based, in large part, on what we are taught by our families, our friends, our society as a whole. Just as Rodgers & Hammerstein warned us in “South Pacific”, our culture and our own experiences can teach us to fear or to hate just about anything.

Yet, fear and hate do have their differences. Fear is defined as a response to a serious threat to our well-being. Hatred is defined more loosely – as we can see by the number of ways we are able to use the word in a sentence. Fear is a closed system, by that I mean it often turns us insular; the goal is to protect ourselves. Sometimes, this may include protecting those we care about, but in either case, it tends to reduce the size of the circle. We must protect ourselves and those we love from what is “out there” – an idea that blends well with the development of hatred. Hatred is the justification for reducing the circle: we must keep those things/people out because they will hurt us. As the circle tightens, the mechanism for keeping others out must be enhanced.

Before you know it, we consider building walls, believing they can keep us safe. Humans have been doing this for centuries. We have built forts, castles, and electric fences – all designed to keep “us” safe and “them” out. In this physical sense, walls are seen as a way to protect us and enhance our sense of well-being. Clearly, in some ways this is true. It is better to live in a home than on the street. However, psychologically speaking, walls have a very different connotation. Walls keep us from sharing who we are, they stunt our growth, and they keep us from going outside of our comfort zone. They are things we hide behind. They are things that block us from our emotions, from our ability to see inside (or let others see inside), or from moving to a new or better place. By building these walls, we limit our ability to achieve our full potential. In a psychological context, walls isolate us, make us feel that the only one we can trust is ourselves, lead us to feel more fear because we KNOW we cannot survive on our own.

I can go on and on about psychological walls, but I think Paul Simon gave a remarkably good summary of what it is like to live inside the walls we build: “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island…A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” (Simon, Paul. EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group). Whenever I hear that song, I feel sad. Ironically, even though Paul Simon doesn’t want to care about anyone, the words evoke empathy and I share the pain of his situation. If we were all to build walls, we would block out that key human quality of empathy, something even infants are capable of experiencing. If you have ever been in the presence of a group of newborns, you would know that when one cries, they all begin to cry. It would seem to be a collaborative effort setting out an alert for the adults “out there” to come and do something to help. Toddlers will share their blanket with others who are in distress. The fact that these behaviors are present without training speaks volumes about their survival benefit; our instincts tell us we need each other.

Fear of other humans is not innate; it is, as I said before, taught. The fact that we must teach “stranger danger” speaks volumes. I am not suggesting that we eliminate teaching our children about the danger of some strangers, but I am cautioning about how far we have taken this. We need to consider how the fear of others has grown too expansive. We need to evaluate the criteria we are using to define strangers and question the validity of these criteria. We need to carefully consider how much fear we instill in children when we tell them that physicians, police officers, teachers, babysitters, relatives, all possess some element of danger. We must consider what this level of fear is doing to us. When our neighbors become defined as strangers, when we don’t look at the people we pass in the corridors at work, when we assume that most people are evil, we create a world where our fight or flight system is always on, where our bodies are physically taxed, and where our emotional life is drained. We add to our stress because when we do need to reach out (we are sick and need someone to get our medicine; we lost our wallet and need money for public transportation; we are lost and our phone is out of battery), our circle is so small that those within it may not be able to or available to provide the needed assistance.

It is crucial that we expand our thinking and come to recognize that there are billions of good people “out there”. We cannot be fooled into thinking that the “bad” we see on the news on a daily basis represents all of humanity. We know that is not true. My heartfelt belief is that we need to develop mutual dependence and recognize that we are not meant to survive on our own; we are meant to survive and thrive as a group.

 

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  -Edmund Burke

 

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

Bricks-Stone-Wall-with-Red-Love-Heart-625x417

The Walking Dead

I see them everywhere. I see them on buses and trains, with their heads bobbing uncontrollably. I see them holding onto steering wheels in cars while the traffic moves, sometimes at high rates of speed, other times in the slow, rhythmic stop-and-go traffic characteristic of cities. I see them in restaurants staring at their phones, mesmerized by the screen. I see them holding on to magazines and books with their eyes closed. I see them holding their babies. I see them in class trying to hold their heads up, fearing that if they move their hand from their chin they will fall onto the desk and fall asleep – not because they are bored, but because they are bone tired. When I ask my students, “If I shut the lights and told you it was naptime, how many of you think you could fall asleep?” almost all of them say they could. We are an exhausted society.

Sleep, while incredibly important for our physical well-being, is often put at the bottom of our priority list. First we have to complete our list of things we need to do (go to work/school, complete an assignment, get food/water, ensure that we have clean clothes to wear, and so on). Then we have to complete our list of what we want to do (talk to our friends, watch some Netflix, exercise, and so on). I know we also all have the unending list of things we should do – but if you read my first blog you know I prefer to change that list to needs/wants. In any event, sleep tends to go to the bottom of all these lists – it is something we do when we complete the things we need/want/should do – or something we do unexpectedly…we fall asleep while doing something on those lists.

Let’s go back a bit. I said sleep is incredibly important, but I gave no supporting evidence. We all get by, so what is the big deal, right? Well, sleep is restorative. It is where growth happens; as adults we tend to think “I’m grown, so who cares?” Our cells are restored during sleep; we would not need the soaps that claim to rid us of wrinkles or the shampoos that claim to give luster to our hair. Sleep would give us those things. Sleep refreshes us, helps us process and recover from the day’s events. It helps restore our energy for the next day. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, reduces our concentration, our attention, and our motor skills. It makes it more difficult for us to be patient, so our mood fluctuates and we seem angrier. If our concentration is reduced, our attention is less focused, and we seem less energetic, then we are also likely to be described as less motivated than our more well rested peers.

Most of us cope with our lack of sleep by increasing our caffeine consumption. (I will not entertain the use of more serious stimulants as an option here, although I am certainly aware of their use and impact. We will stick to a discussion of caffeine because it is legal and readily accessible, with no real constraints even with regard to age). It is in soda (even some that are not cola based), coffee, tea, chocolate, ice cream, some pain medications, energy drinks – including water that is marketed as energy packed. It is difficult to know how much caffeine we are ingesting a day; it is not a nutrient so it is not listed on the Nutrient Facts Panel; if it is added to a food as an ingredient, then it must be on the food products label (http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm194317.htm). The point is, very few of us are keeping track of our daily consumption of caffeine, but it is likely impacting our sleep patterns.

Caffeine is not “bad”. It certainly, like all stimulants, gives us a burst of energy, increases our optimism, making us feel like we can get it ALL done, helps us feel like we can concentrate on the task at hand. Problem is, our energy is not always focused. We sit down with that cup of coffee and our book to read. Then we jump up because we forgot our highlighter. Then we get up to get our phone that we forgot near the coffee pot. Then we…anyway, our focus is not always there. Sometimes we are so unfocused that the “fall” from the burst happens before we accomplish our goal. The solution? More caffeine. No, not really: the solution is more sleep. After all, it is sleep that actually restores our energy and helps us concentrate and helps us maintain an optimistic mood.   I guess this is the right place to mention that caffeine, if we overdo it, does have some negative associations. It can make us anxious (our heartbeats will certainly increase), it can cause dehydration, stomach upset, and lack of appetite. If you really want to understand its side effects, try giving it up for a day. My students often try this as a challenge I offer them; they write about their withdrawal headaches, their irritability, their fatigue. They are miserable for the day. That has to tell us something about our over reliance on it.

So, back to the idea that we need more sleep. How can we really get more?

  1. We need to relax before bed. Clear our heads of what is bothering us. Children are great at that. We can be with them all day, asking about their day. They have nothing to say until they are in bed and then they “remember” about something they forgot to do, or got in trouble for doing. They call out to a parent, who comforts them. They fall asleep, sometimes the parent does not, taking the worry on as their own. Interestingly, many couples do this too. They wait until they are in bed and then say things like “Did I tell you I forgot to pay the credit card bill?” or “Did I mention that I’m going out of town this weekend?” Upsetting conversations do not belong at the end of the day or in the bedroom.
  2. Make the bedroom a relaxing place. Sending children to their room as a punishment only creates association of bed with “bad” and withdrawal of love. Those emotions are not compatible with sleep. Making the bedroom their playroom is also a problem, blurring the line between playtime and bedtime. For adults, too, bedroom associations of relaxation and intimacy are far more likely to produce a restful sleep than associations of arguments and rejection.
  3. Allow yourself time to daydream before bed. That can be much more relaxing than watching the news or even reading a book that keeps you wanting to find out what happens next. A good daydream allows us to escape from the realities we face, while affording the opportunity to put ourselves in the role of “winner”. We can accomplish anything in a daydream and, with enough rest, we could more easily turn those daydreams into realities.
  4. Concentrating on what you accomplished is more relaxing than concentrating on what you did not do during the day or what is left to do tomorrow. Thinking about what you did provides closure. I did make that phone call, I did send out resumes/do my homework (or some of it), I did text my friends. When we concentrate on what we did not do, it increases our anxiety, not only about the day we had and the decisions we made, but about what the next day will be like as well. Whatever we did do during the day, we did because it had value to us. If we accept that fact, then a positive closure follows, and so does a more restful sleep.
  5. If you have the same list of things you did not accomplish every night, make a note to figure out a better plan after you get that sleep. For example, if you did not do laundry 4 days in a row, maybe it is time to ask someone else for some help with it. Or maybe it is a chore you do not like and you can “trade chores” with a housemate. Or maybe you can save money somewhere else and pay to have the laundry done for you. Sleep helps us be more creative problem solvers.
  6. Turn down the lights – especially on your devices. The light mimics daytime and confuses your brain into thinking it should be awake. Less light, more sleep.
  7. Tackle the shoulds. Write them down so they do not continually play over and over again in your head. As we try to remember our list, we get more anxious and sleep evades us. So, write them down. Look the list over in the morning and make a real effort to convert them to needs and wants so the “should” can either be accomplished or discarded.
  8. Make a “happy book”. Put some fun pictures or nice quotes in there. Look at it before bed so you end the day thinking of good thoughts. Good thoughts can be elusive, and something concrete to look at can be very helpful.
  9. Did I mention reducing that caffeine during the day? If that is difficult, end the caffeine intake earlier in the day. Being able to drink a 20 ounce coffee before going to bed is a sign of caffeine tolerance; it means you need more for the same effect of energy. However, that tolerance is impacting the quality of your sleep.
  10. Blow some bubbles. Yes, you read that right. Blowing bubbles helps us take a deep breath. Then we need to release it. Then we can imagine our troubles floating away in the bubbles. It can be a great way to end the day.

I wish you restful nights and energetic tomorrows!

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” ~Charlotte Brontë

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

Why Worry?

Worry gets a bad name. It is often considered a fault, a personality characteristic to be “fixed” or removed. There are hundreds of quotes that warn us about the uselessness of worry. Psychologists, myself included, help people minimize their worrying and anxiety. The question that haunts me is: If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind?

One value is that worriers are often very empathetic people: they can put themselves in the place of others, are able to allow themselves the risk of feeling someone else’s pain, they are smart, they are often aware of risks that others do not see, or choose to block out. Worriers allow the rest of us to not worry; they take on that burden for us. We criticize them and then rely on them for the very things we choose not to worry about – having a tissue, a bandage, a pin to hide the fact that we lost a button. We criticize them for worrying about the bigger things too – but when they continue to point out the issues (you know, like worrying if you’ll make your flight in enough time or, even larger, worrying about climate change), eventually they show us the path to a solution to the problem.

Worry, then, has an important human function; it often signals to us that some action is needed. This, I think, is part of the answer. Worry is useful when it results in an action that makes something better. What actions are possible? Actions that change the situation, or actions that change our attitude about the situation. Worry has a bad name because it is connected, in some way, to not being able to control the situation that is worrying us. So, worrying about a potential accident seems useless – until we realize that if we control our actions (wear safe shoes, drive safe cars, be attentive when walking alone), or our attitude (“I do all I can to be safe”), then the worry results in something we can control and something that, therefore, has a value. When worry results in no change of action or attitude, it is a negative trait. When it results in action, I am suggesting that it is (although it’s hard for me to admit) a positive trait.

The idea that worrying is not all bad will be quite a relief for worriers because worriers often suffer. They feel it physically. Their hearts race, their pupils dilate, their perspiration increases, and their digestion stops (they feel it in their stomach – they feel nauseous or feel like they need to defecate). They feel it emotionally, dreading that something awful has happened or will happen. Their worry can reduce their personal happiness. It can impact their relationships. The criticism they receive and the teasing about their anxious state wears them down and separates them from others.

I am proposing that the non-worriers of the world pause for a moment to consider the fact that worry, when it flows from caring and concern, has a value. It can result in useful actions. It is something that can bring people closer together rather than further apart. For that to happen, non-worriers have to hear the issue being presented and respond to the issue – not to the assumptions we make about the worrier or the reason they are worried. This dynamic often comes into play in the interactions between parents and adult children, partly because, no matter how old the children are, and no matter how aware parents are that their children are fully grown, very capable, independent, and self-sufficient adults–for most parents, their children will also always be their babies. For example, an intelligent, young, single woman, very successfully living on her own in NYC, tells her mother that she met a young man online, and she’s made plans to meet him for drinks. The mother and daughter engage in a script that is familiar to both of them. (A script is a mental picture of the behaviors that are expected in a situation). The mother asks for details about him: What’s his name? How old is he? Where does he live? What does he do? Where does he work? Phone number? No matter that the daughter has undoubtedly already discovered and evaluated a great deal of basic information about the young man—the worrying mother thinks, “he could be a serial killer!!” The assumptions the young woman makes during this exchange probably include: (1) my parent doesn’t trust me, (2) my parent thinks I am still a child, (3) my parent is such a nag, (4) my parent is just crazy!!   Such assumptions easily result in frustration, anger, and/or an argument. If the young adult assumes instead that the worry is a sign of love, and realizes that the worry is in part based on real (although, thankfully, rare) dreadful events on the news, then the result can be a very different response. Possibly something like, “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.” If the young adult says, “I love you too, and I’ll text you when I get home” it really changes the conversation. Instead of arguing about how the parent is always nagging or how the young adult is immature or irresponsible, the conversation ends with an emotional connection.

Additionally, couples often consist of a worrier and non-worrier. They also engage in scripts. For example, the non-worrier often tells the worrier that they are being “ridiculous” – there is no cause for concern, they are exaggerating the danger, they are negative and take the joy out of “everything”. The worrier, in turn, finds the non-worrier irresponsible or immature, impulsive, and unable to see the realistic picture. Often, the non-worrier tries to hide their real concerns, thinking if they express any concern at all, it will put the worrier “over the edge.” This script, however, only increases the worry because the worrier finds this “cavalier” attitude cause for concern because it indicates that the non-worrier is making absolutely no effort to control the dangers. The worry increases, the physical reaction to it increases, the emotional reaction increases, making the worrier even more concerned. This, in turn, increases the efforts of the non-worrier to minimize the perceived dangers. This script escalates the problem rather than addresses it. It is much more productive for the non-worrier to acknowledge the concerns brought up, address how they are being handled (making the worrier feel that the dangers are at least somewhat controlled), and end with “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.”

I am not unrealistic. This small change in script is not going to change the entire dynamic between a worrier and a non-worrier. It is not going to eliminate the unpleasant physical reaction to worry. It will not eliminate all annoyance in the non-worrier. But it will change something (and that is the point of worry). It will change the relationship because when the young adult leaves after addressing the worry, the parent is forced to see him/her as “responsible” and “mature” and worried about their own safety and the happiness of the parent. The parent eventually (hopefully) sees less need for worry. It will change a couple’s relationship by helping each partner acknowledge (and hopefully understand) the other’s concern (and lack of concern).

Now for those big worries, like climate change and getting robbed and cars being hacked into while we are driving…well those worries need to result in a change too. We need to listen to these concerns with an appreciation for the importance of worry, the importance of preparedness, and the focus on concern for humankind. If we assume that the worriers have our best interests at heart, the conversation that follows will certainly be a more productive one.

So, to return to my opening question – If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind? The value of worry is in its potential to move us toward action when action is needed.

Diane Urban, PhD

I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can change the direction of my sails to get to my destination.” ~ Jimmy Dean

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