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The 2 Questions I Ask Myself When I Can't Control My Worrying

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I’m a naturally anxious person. I like things done a certain way; change is hard for me; I do not like the unknown. This isn’t a new development – I was an anxious kid too, but what is a semi-new development is how I am handling this anxiety.

Spoiler alert – it’s not always great.

For example, I was feeling particularly anxious about something the other day and somewhat ironically, happened to have a midwife’s appointment scheduled. After the nurse called me back into the room, she asked me the usual innocuous questions and then unvelcro-ed her blood pressure cuff.

“What is your blood pressure normally like?”
“Oh yeah. It’s sort of low. I’m usually around 110/70.”
“Well, it’s not low today. You’re up around 140. Can you take a deep breath?”

So I took a deep breath – and my blood pressure stabilized.

At first glance, this episode didn’t provide me with any great insight, but during a conversation with my brother later that night I realized something – things I worry about, things that aren’t even actually happening, are affecting how my body functions right now, in a very real way.

Like the time I laid awake in the middle of the night with heart palpitations because I was worried I was going to be worrying about something that might happen during Oliver’s birthday party.

Or the time I worried myself sick all during our annual Christmas lights pilgrimage because I thought I might have to start my clinical fellowship over if some paperwork had not been filed appropriately.

Those benign moments were tainted because I was so focused on the “what-ifs” of the future. What-ifs I had absolutely no control over – no matter how much or how hard I thought about them. Now granted, I have made great strides with my anxiety (and right now you’re thinking, “These are great strides? What is she smoking? And also, how can I get some?”). But there was a time when these kinds of triggers would absolutely cripple me to the point of not being able to function. I have moved through that time, and for that I am extremely grateful. I have moved through to a place where I can recognize there will be things in my life that are going happen, and they are going to be out of my control. I can choose to perseverate on these things until they drive me crazy or I can recognize them as a stressor and tell them to get the F out of my way.

These days, I try to ask myself two questions:

  1. Is this useful? Because there is a “useful” kind of worrying. You might worry about your tires on your car being low. So you realize you should stop at the gas station and fill them up. Problem solved. What you shouldn’t (and I sometimes tend to) do, is replay how you are going to get to the gas station step-by-step, mentally tackling potential obstacle along the way – over and over. What if the pump is broken? What if I don’t have enough quarters? What if it’s not just that I’m low on air and something is really wrong with my tire? This is not a useful line of thinking. If I get to this point, I know I have gone too far.
  2. Can I do anything to change this? If the answer is yes, refer to #1, create an action plan and move on. If the answer is no, I have to let it go. (I don’t have daughters, so I will not be making the expected “Frozen” reference here.)

It’s a pretty simple two-step process that more often than not, I mess up in some way; however, when I get it right – it yields powerful results. Results that don’t cause a nurse to tell you the calm the heck down when you’re sitting in her office for a routine appointment.

It’s been a long and winding road (as The Beatles say) to get to this point. Of course, there are still times when I think I have everything under control, only to find out I am about to step off a cliff; but I’ve found that those cliffs are starting to become far less arduous and much easier to navigate around. I’m certainly not in a place where I feel like I’ve got this whole game of life figured out and I don’t worry at all any more, but I am in a place when I can see some of my worrying for what it is: useless.

**Points #1 and #2 were gleaned from Dan Harris’ “10% Happier” and Alan and Nikki Lawrence of “That Dad Blog.” Check them out!

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way. This is one individual’s experience.

Originally published: March 17, 2016
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