Contented Reader

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On worry

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A conversation I had with my girlfriend made me think about worry, and my past and present with it.

I’m a worrier.  Many of the people I know like myself, people who read a lot and think a lot, are worriers.  I think it might be one of the disadvantages of having an active mind and a good imagination; we can vividly imagine a very wide range of ways things might go wrong.

I used to be a much worse worrier than I am now.  I was in a job that was too difficult for me, and lacked the knowledge and skills to do it well.  My boss was actively gathering data to support firing me, and made no secret of it.  I was struggling with growing doubts about my religion, and with growing certainty about my gayness.  I was struggling to pay off some big credit card debts, and my student loans.  I was living in a community where I didn’t have any friends or much of a peer group.  I worried all the time.  Often, I didn’t sleep well, or at all.  I walked around in a haze of misery; in the middle of class, I’d have to discreetly slip out of the room to cry for no reason.

Here are the things I would do when I felt worried:

  • Stare out of the window and brood
  • Stare out of the window and think about good suicide methods
  • Stare out of the window and cry
  • Eat large quantities of junk food

I was aware this wasn’t a good way to live, and I didn’t want to be miserable.  So I went to talk to a psychologist.  He wasn’t that useful, really.  He didn’t practice ‘cognitive behavioral therapy,’ which, from what I’ve heard, would have been super-helpful for me.  He pretty much just listened to me as I talked out all the things that were making me worried.

But going to the psychologist was, at least, taking an action.  If I could do that, I could take another action. I started really aggressively paying toward my debts- and it took me quite a few years, but I paid them off.  I realized that I wasn’t indentured to my terrible job, and sought a different one in a larger city.  I moved.  I made some friends.  I explored what I believed in a serious and honest way.  I came out, to myself, then my friends, then my family, then everyone including strangers on the internet and my elderly grandmother.

Fixing the things that were actually wrong in my life did a world of good in decreasing the amount of worrying I was doing.  But it took a long time to fix them.  Years.   Along the way, I developed some strategies for worry that worked a little better than my ‘stare out the window’ suite of responses.

Now, I try to be aware of my thought processes, so when I start to worry, I can immediately divert myself by engaging my mind and/or my body in something that will distract me.  It doesn’t always work.  But I’m getting there.  Late at night is the hardest thing- I try to get enough exercise that I’ll go to bed tired.  If I find myself lying awake worrying, and can’t divert my mind, I’ll get out of the bed and go do something for an hour, because being alone  in my mind with my anxieties is a terrible awful feeling that I avoid at all costs.

I’m still, by nature, a worrier.  I still find myself lying awake at night, at least once every week or two, rehearsing conversations I might have, listing people who may not like me, thinking of ways it might all fall apart. I still have lots of days when I feel my mind circling around the same worry, when I feel my chest tightening and my throat closing up.  But now, I have a longer list of things I do when I start to feel that way.

  • Take a walk
  • Meditate
  • Read something highly engaging and light
  • Clean
  • Put in a DVD and cross-stitch
  • Go for a swim
  • Make a list of the things that are worrying me, with boxes to check off when I solve them
  • Make a list of actions I can take about my worries, and take one of them
  • Log onto Wikipedia and improve something
  • Roller skate
  • Log onto Distributed Proofreaders and proofread a few pages of some future Project Gutenberg book
  • Grab a sketchbook, go outside, and find something to draw
  • Find an interesting piece of writing, and hand-copy or type it
  • Play a game online.
  • Re-organize or alphabetize something.
  • Study Esperanto- memorize vocabulary, or pull out the dictionary and grammar book and translate something
  • Work out at the gym, with my iPod playing something entertaining
  • Go for a wander at a library or a bookstore
  • Write about what’s worrying me, in a positive way that emphasizes what I’m learning from it or what I can do about it
  • Plan a trip somewhere new

I suppose I’ll always be a worrier.  Maybe that’s the price some of us pay for being thinkers.  I frighten myself, sometimes, with how easy it is to make myself stunningly and world-shatteringly unhappy with nothing more than the contents of my own mind.  I’d love to be the kind of person who can sit, idle and at peace, someday.  But for now, the only thing I know that works for me is keeping mind and body very active, because if I slow down too much, my worries catch up.

Ten years ago, I was a worrier who could describe in intimate sad detail the view out my window.  Today, I’m a worrier who can rollerskate without falling, lift 25-pound weights and do 40 squats in one workout, and draw something in a way that doesn’t completely suck.  Because I’m a worrier outrunning my worry, I am moderately proficient in Esperanto, with a green belt in karate, a baroness of the court in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an administrator on Wikipedia, and more well-read than many of my acquaintances.  Most of my tiny accomplishments are simply a result of me trying to stay a step ahead of my worries.

What’s my point?

  • I think it’s possible that being a thoughtful and introspective person might go hand-in-hand with anxiety and worry.
  • For me, keeping my mind deeply engaged in something is the best way to stay ahead of worry.
  • The things I’ve done to distract myself from worry have enriched my life in a wide variety of interesting ways- and I probably wouldn’t have done them if I weren’t such a worrier.

Written by Contented Reader

August 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Opinions


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