We have a cat named “Worry.” He is the apple of my eye. Most cats meow. Worry chirps. Sometimes he moves his mouth and there is a delay in the sounds he makes, almost as if he is a feline ventriloquist. As a kitten, he fell off a lumber pile onto his head. Ever since he has been prone to stop and just cry out. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the day or the middle of the night. It’s as if he is saying, “Hey, I’m here. Where is everybody?”
Elin and I chuckle a lot about the irony of his name because most of the time he is one chill dude.
To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive. Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won’t keep on that way. – Joko Beck
In humans, worry can be malignant. We are among the only beings who can envision the future and thus fear all the things that might happen. We fill our heads with worst-case scenarios, what-ifs that science says are no more likely than positive outcomes. Yet our brains are hardwired to anticipate possibly harmful outcomes. It goes back to our days fighting sabre-toothed tigers.
Since we no longer have to fear dangerous predators, our fight-or-flight mechanisms can get caddywhompus. We invent all kinds of things about which to worry and send the cortisol streaming through our veins. Worry can become a kind of low-level constant state. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the impact too much worry can take on our bodies. There is a definite mind-body connection.
Take this simple test: close your eyes and breathe for a minute. Focus on your breath, in and out a few times. Feel your abdomen expand and contract with each in- and out-breath. Focus on your breathing for a minute. There. Now take yourself back to a difficult time, maybe a fight with your partner or with your teen-ager or maybe you had an accident, or to some future event–maybe a talk you have to give in front of a crowd of people or you have a tax bill to pay. Can you feel your heart rate quicken? Can you feel the anxiety?
I’ve realized recently that experiences in my past impact my state of mind today. I’m not that much different than a lot of people who have lived; I’ve divorced, I’ve had trying times with my children, I’ve been fired and have lost jobs (even some I loved), and I’ve had a few health issues. I began to wonder if all the stuff of my life to this point–particularly the past seven trying years–has caused an ongoing river of concern flowing in the background of my brain. Does the worry train run 24/7 through my head regardless of what I might be focusing on in the moment?
Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear. – Corrie Ten Boom
And, if I am constantly worried, what impact does that have on my physical health?
We know from science that the anxiety response causes cortisol to flow through our system. This can lead to inflammation and the release of other chemicals. A continuous state of high alert is not easy on our body. There is scientific evidence that a continuous heightened state of alert can tax our immune systems and lead to disease–heart problems, autoimmune diseases like eczema, asthma even perhaps cancer. I’m not a scientst. I just know what I’ve read.
According to WebMD, the popular online medical site, “Chronic worry and emotional stress can trigger a host of health problems. The problem occurs when fight or flight is triggered daily by excessive worrying and anxiety. The fight or flight response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides (blood fats) that can be used by the body for fuel.” The article goes on to say that excessive and constant anxiety can cause a suppression of the immune system, digestive disorders, coronary artery disease, and heart attacks.
Could my tendency to ruminate over the state of things–for example, what kind of father I’ve been to my children, how I make my real estate business successful and avoid failure, and since I am a cancer survivor, how I keep cancer at bay–actually cause harm to my body?
“Shit happens,” a close friend advised me, quoting Buddha. “That would be on his license plate.”
She was advocating a different perspective on how I think about my experiences. For example, rather than view myself as a failure as a father, why not see that I’m a father who is trying to do the right thing and I’m imperfect. Rather than see me as permanently frail–“a delicate flower”–because of the array of health challenges I’ve had, see myself as a resilient example of someone who has survived and moved through health challenge after health challenge. “You are a recovery machine,” my doctor has said.
The point is our perspective about our experiences can influence how we incorporate them into our identities. Rather than owning our “bad” events, we can see that we are imperfect people who deal with unfortunate things as well as joy. We are not always “delicate flowers,” “bad parents” “people with targets on our backs.”
There is nothing wrong with self-reflection. In fact, self-reflection is a path toward growth. The danger is getting on hamster wheel of self-recrimination and worry about both the past and the future that becomes a never ending spiral downward. Much of the time when people label us, it’s as much about them as it is about us.
Two questions, then, we can begin to ask:
1.) What is this saying about me?
2.) Is it true?
When your ex calls you an asshole because of something you’ve done, does it mean you are an asshole or could it be that you have a different point of view? You might be an asshole but it would not be based solely on what your ex says about you. If you get fired and your ex-boss says something about you as a work colleague or your performance, does that mean you are a failure or does it mean that, for example, the job you did didn’t play to your strengths, or, even better, you are imperfect and you made some mistakes which the organization was unable to tolerate? Their loss.
The things that happen to us don’t have to define us. Having a deeper awareness of one’s value, in one’s goodness and a balance between what is good and honest about us and where we are weak or imperfect, offers a path out of continuous worry.
Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy. – Leo Buscaglia
Shit happens. So much is way beyond our control. We can own our responses but not the things that happen to us. Some reflection on things is worthwhile, but getting on the death spiral of worry, doubt and self-recrimination is not. My friend advocated that I give myself a break by looking at my experiences with a little distance and pondering what they mean. For a few minutes. Then moving on to what I need to focus on now.
Photo: Author’s Own