“With so much time worrying, I forgot to live my life.”
The Time Machine Invention, Cloud Cult
We are a worried society. I feel it, and see it in my students every day. We’re primed for anxiety from morning until night. Our connections to the stream of disturbing events has this…umbilical quality. We tug the umbilicus, switch on, and there it is, our hourly sack-o-news, plentiful, available, pre-digested, dependably depressing. This grim backdrop to our everyday worries is enough to make us constantly on edge. We could swim, or drown in the details.
Anxious worrying is the new normal for many, and it will kill some of us before sugary drinks can.
My worst period of anxious worrying as an adult happened seven years ago. I'd chosen to move from the Chicago area to Chico, California to be with my soon-to-be husband, Marc, who was a long-time tenured professor at the State University. Worry piled on top of worry as I prepared for the trip. I was leaving a high-paying job that had been constantly stressful. Friends had urged me for months prior to “leave that shark tank,” but my worries about being a good provider in my previous marriage prevented me from making moves on my own (I see now how firmly I'd been embedded in that particular worry trap. It felt like my whole identity could manifest only in that whirlwind.) Oh, and being ninety minutes away from a major city or airport meant I would need to re-think my career entirely and find something local. I had no clue what that would be.
The difference between Chico and Chicago, Marc says, is the “ag.” As in agriculture. I'd always been a travelling big-city gal. Riding and rodeo is a reality in Chico. I look terrible in western wear and cowboy boots, so even my leisure routine seemed a preeminent bust. To a person, my family and friends supported me in taking on this new adventure as I retreated inside my head. There, anticipated loss piled on top of anticipated loss, and the high cost of starting over became clearer as I got more anxious. Why be hopeful and excited over new prospects when worry is right there to fill your head with risk alerts?
Now, there is much more to the Chico story than any preconception of it, including mine. The same is true of ourselves. But knowing this doesn’t necessarily abate feelings of terror, or relieve one from fantasies of dropping into the abyss. When our wits flee, bits of carefully cultivated character fall away and baser instinct is exposed, leaving one in a hot-mess state. (That is, we get on our high horses, and not the kind you can literally ride). That’s where I was.
Professor Marc created a simple tool to help me find center again amidst a barrage of disorganized thoughts. He called it The Worry Matrix. I found it so useful as a focusing tool that, when I started teaching, I adapted it for my students’ use. No surprise that so many young people are worried, too, and those concerns can limit their ability to grow.
For reasons described in my previous post, I’ve found value in returning to the tool myself. After all, none of us is an expert in negotiating all vagaries of life. We slip sometimes and need to find our footing in new life landscapes.
Here’s The Worry Matrix and instructions for use.
Carefully consider each situation causing worry. Take on your worries one by one; write them down and include anything you can think of that’s disturbing the peace. Take the first, clearly defined worry and run it through the process represented by the column on the left of the chart below. The four options there pretty much cover all possibilities when it comes to worries. Find the one that best describes your worry and follow the advice to the right.
The matrix allows you to worry about some things, but prohibits you from worrying about other things until the right time. It then offers a constructive approach to your concern to keep your mind from feeding on itself. While some believe we should never worry, Marc the psychologist thinks anticipating some problems can be functional, and I think so, too. We project managers call this sound risk management.
1. In all cases, try meditation, prayer, yoga, a relaxation app with breathing instructions, reading, reaching out to a member of your tribe—whatever gives you comfort, whatever moves you off the worry plane THAT'S HEALTHY, and doesn't further suck the life out of you, like drinking, drugs, too much mindless distraction, etc. By the way, regarding the breathing recommendation. Most people are not good at breathing, and we benefit by learning what taking healthy breaths looks and feels like. Focusing on getting this right can immediately lift you off the worry plane; this is also a meditative practice. I find it beautiful, and you can easily find apps and advice on the web that will help you gain control over your breath. The app I use is called “Breathe,” and I let it take me through at least six good breaths whenever I need to shift gears and clear my mind.
2. If you find yourself addicted to the exercise of worrying, try this. List five things that are highest on your worry radar, and then list five things you can reasonably do to address those worries. See where the limits are, and act positively wherever you can. For example, if you fear something will happen during the year, sketch a plan for what to do about it for the day or week ahead. Replace that Big Worry with a piece of it that’s “actionable.” Focus on the action. If there is nothing to do, this worry can only haunt you. In such cases, refer to the Worry Matrix and to Situation #4 at the bottom of the list.
3. Any action you take in forthright, life-affirming kindness toward self or others is always an improvement over useless worrying. Intend to be a consistent example of...transcending? You, as always, get to decide how you want to show up in life, and how to live into the full potential of "you."
Folks, we travel together on a great but rocky road. I mentioned a favorite indie band at the top of this piece. There's another Cloud Cult line I like: "It's easy to be grateful for what we have; it takes guts to have gratitude for what we've lost." Don't just count losses. Bless them. And stop worrying.
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