On Worrying

December 2010 – January 2011


I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.  Sometime around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., I realize I’m not asleep; I lie in bed brooding over the things I’m worried about.  My mind circles around them, trying to escape their pull so I can relax and get back to sleep, but inevitably I’m drawn to my worries as if to a magnet.    I’m worried about how hard it will be for my daughter to achieve her career goal; I’m worried about my own job; I’m worried about the state of the country; I’m worried about the state of the world.  I play out bleak scenarios in my mind.  It’s particularly bad in the middle of the night.

It’s better in the light of day, although I’ve never been able to figure out whether my daytime view or my nighttime view is the “more accurate” one.  Am I seeing things more clearly and dispassionately in the light of day?  Or does the daytime somehow enable me to draw a “protective curtain” between me and my worries, shielding me from how worthy of worry the things I’m worried about truly are?

Problems, I know, are relative things.  Relative to so many people, I have nothing to worry about (leaving aside the truly outsize problems of the country and the world, which we all share).  I have a wonderful husband of 31 years; two healthy, well-adjusted children who went to good colleges and graduated with honors; financial security; and, for the most part, my health.  I don’t have to look far to see people who have serious problems – people who don’t know how they’re going to pay the next month’s rent or mortgage; people who are still searching for a life-mate well into their fifties; people who are far from healthy, who have cancer or multiple sclerosis or chronic pain; people whose children live on the edge of one of life’s many abysses or wander aimlessly in life’s “finding myself” valley, well into adulthood.  I have none of those serious problems, and I remind myself of this often.  And I’m very, very grateful, because I know that, while some of good fortune is due to good judgment and hard work, some of it is just good luck.  And I’m well aware that many people haven’t had such good luck.  I have a friend who got a virulent type of cancer in her early forties; I have a neighbor whose child accidentally hit her head at age 2 and has been severely brain damaged ever since; I know someone whose child has a rare genetic disease that is severely disabling and disfiguring, someone with schizophrenia, someone with bipolar disorder, someone in an advanced stage of multiple sclerosis who can no longer do anything for herself.  I could go on (but I’ll spare my readers).  Why, given that I have no such serious problems, do I worry?

I’ll say at the outset that I believe the state of the country and the state of the world are serious problems that anyone with a brain who’s paying attention would worry about.  We’ve been witnessing the decline of our political system – the wrenching mental disfiguration of one of the two major political parties in particular – for a few decades now.  We’ve been watching the slow but steady transformation of our democracy into a plutocracy, the increasingly corrosive influence of money in our political system and policy making.  There is a growing recognition of this by those who are paying attention.  This is not a “hypochondriac’s illness.”  This is real.  So too is climate change and our Congress’s stunning refusal to address it.  When one of the two major political parties is still in denial about climate change and is still referring to the climate change “debate among scientists,” there is a serious problem.  There is no debate; the consensus is overwhelming and getting ever stronger as the mountain of evidence accumulates.  The potential adverse consequences of climate change, under a “Congress continues to refuse to do anything” scenario, are truly daunting; and so far, Congress is indeed refusing to do anything. (Don’t those people have children and grandchildren??)  There are some things about which it’s crazy or negligent not to worry.

But I have virtually no control over the problems of the country or the world.  So what good does it do to worry about them?  What good does it do to lose sleep over them?  None, of course.  Then again, one could ask, why worry about anything?  Worrying doesn’t help solve problems.

Indeed.  But perhaps it’s precisely those problems over which we feel a lack of control that we are most likely to worry about – situations in which there is great uncertainty, in which awful scenarios might unfold, accompanied by a sense of lack of control.

And there’s one more ingredient for a worrying brew: we must care deeply about what happens.  If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t worry. I don’t worry about other people’s children’s career choices or about the dysfunctional political systems in other countries or about climate change on other planets.

And even though the more personal problems I worry about are not of the same order of magnitude as the problems of so many people I know, I still worry about them.  Although recounting how much more awful many other people’s problems are helps me keep things in perspective – which is important – somehow it doesn’t enable me to stop worrying about my less awful problems (which are apparently not sufficiently less awful for me to simply brush my worries away).  The fact that I know people with truly debilitating or even life-threatening problems doesn’t make me care any less about my daughter’s success and happiness in life.  Maybe I should feel that I (and my daughter) should be content with less (since most people have less), and I therefore shouldn’t worry about the possibility that my daughter won’t be able to achieve what she’s set out to achieve.  Perhaps I should feel that way, but I don’t.  I love her and I want her to be happy.

If there’s a genetic component to the tendency to worry, I was a marked woman.  My mother was a class-A worrier.  She worried every time I made a plane reservation (that my plane would crash); she worried when my husband and I bought our first house (what if we both lost our jobs and couldn’t sell the house?); she worried years later when we added a sunroom onto the back of our house (what if burglars broke in through the French doors?).  In fact, she spent so much emotional energy worrying about things that I thought didn’t warrant any worry at all that she expressed no concern about things that actually warranted concern (like her daughter’s career path).

So why don’t I also worry about my planes crashing, if I’m such a worrier?  I don’t worry about such things because they’re such low probability events.  It’s true that I don’t have control once I’ve boarded a plane; it’s also true that there’s uncertainty and the chance of an awful scenario unfolding – the plane could crash, and all the passengers on it could be killed.  It happens.  But it’s rare.  Your chances of getting killed in a plane crash are much, much less than your chances of getting killed in a car crash (which I also don’t worry about).  Maybe that’s what distinguishes the true worriers from the garden variety worriers.  The true worriers aren’t stymied by low probabilities.  The true worriers don’t even think about probabilities.  I do.

So I’m rational enough not to worry about very low-probability events, but not rational enough not to worry, period.  Actually, I don’t know anyone who’s that rational.

The current vogue is to figure that there must be an evolutionary reason why we are the way we are, not only physically, but behaviorally as well.  For instance, evolutionary biologists are investigating hypotheses about why we have such a proclivity to believe in supernatural beings (gods).  Perhaps there was an advantage to believing back when we were hunters and gatherers and life was brutish and short.  And we may have also evolved the capacity to worry because it was adaptive (to some environment) to do so.  Maybe the worriers were the first to run at the sound of anything unusual, thus getting more of their genes into the next (slightly more worrying) generation, leaving those who scoffed at them to die out over the millennia.  The advantages of worrying in the modern world, however, escape me.  Really.  It just seems pointless.  And yet I cannot give it up – and it’s not for lack of trying.

I know people who apparently (and I stress the word apparently) don’t worry.  They have what seems to me to be an insupportably sunny view of life.  My sense from listening to such people is that they are either denying the existence of problems – problems that other people acknowledge to be real – or they acknowledge them but seem to be disengaged from them.

Denial is a tried and true technique for coping with problems.  But denial can create its own problems, especially when it interferes with actually taking action to solve or mitigate the problem being denied.  The big, glaring national example of this right now, of course, is the phenomenon of climate change deniers.  Mountain of evidence?  What mountain of evidence??

And some people are able to deny their own personal problems, even as those problems are threatening to inundate and drown them.   At a certain point, reality will intrude on even the most ardent denier, however, unless we’re talking about someone who is truly crazy.  All in all, I’d rather be a worrier than a denier of reality.

Then there are the people who don’t deny problems but seem disengaged from them.  I see this a lot – especially when the problem is not one’s own personal problem, but rather an impersonal problem, such as a national or global problem.  There are a lot of young people who don’t deny climate change but don’t seem particularly bothered by it either.  I don’t imagine they lose any sleep over it, as I do.  And this is odd, since it will affect them much more than it will affect me.  Maybe they simply assume that humankind will figure out a solution in time.  I’ve tried thinking that – and it worked for a while. But the more I pay attention to the political arena (circus) in this country, the less able I am to hang onto that thread of hope.  There’s always the possibility of the “great technological fix” – the big idea that no one has yet thought of, but that someone will soon think of – that will somehow solve the problem of exponentially increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. I’ve been hanging on to that, more desperately, it seems, as the years pass.  Well, it’s still possible, I suppose.

Somewhere between outright denial, or simply assuming a problem will somehow (magically) disappear, on the one hand, and worrying oneself sleepless, on the other hand, lies what must be the “right approach.”   It should be possible – it is at least theoretically possible – to acknowledge a problem without letting it knock you over.  It should be possible to see a problem clearly and squarely and yet be able to take a step back and think about it dispassionately – for more than a few seconds at a time.  Perhaps this is one of those things that just takes practice.

And as I write this, it strikes me that, if anything is worth practicing, this is.  To take a step back and think about the problem dispassionately.  What might be the worst outcome that could happen?  And how would you deal with it?  What solution would you propose.  Dispassionately.  My kneejerk reaction is to note that people have feelings, that they cannot always be dispassionate, especially about things they care deeply about.  True.  But they can try to wrench themselves away from those feelings long enough to look at the problem from an emotional distance … for a while.  And perhaps, each time for a slightly longer while.  With practice.  Worrying doesn’t solve problems, I remind myself.  Dispassionate assessment just might begin to.  It’s worth a try – repeated tries, until it sticks.


Source of Image: NIMH (in the public domain).


One comment on “On Worrying

  1. […] people stay so positive? I think about this often, with a mixture of envy and incredulity. In an essay I wrote several years ago, I pondered the related question of how it is that some people just don’t seem to […]

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