Chronic Worrying: Obsession With Life’s What Ifs

chronic worrying woman in gray sweater with mug
Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

Chronic Worrying

Obsession With Life’s What Ifs

Written by Randi Fine

Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles; but most of them never happened.” ~Mark Twain

Though it may seem like chronic worrying helps to predict the future, avoid surprises, and control the outcome, it is just an illusion. Worrying about the future does not make life safer or more predictable. It causes anxiety and consumes us with fear.

Worry, a form of speculation, is a natural response to life’s uncertainties. Everyone worries from time to time. Occasional worrying can be purposeful. It can act as a motivator.

We live in a culture and an era that promotes worry and stress. With news playing twenty-four hours a day, we hear about the economy, crime, terrorism, conspiracy theories, environmental health hazards, natural disasters, dietary concerns, and incurable diseases.  We hear about new scientific breakthroughs—it seems that everything we eat or expose ourselves to causes cancer.

Worry becomes a problem when it makes us anxious all the time; when we become so entrenched in it that we cannot imagine life without it.

Chronic worrying and anxiety are not normal, healthy states of mind. They trigger the fight or flight response which causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release the stress hormone cortisol.  Cortisol boosts blood sugar levels and triglycerides which are meant to fuel the body.  But if this fuel is not used for physical activity, the body will react with symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, dry mouth, nausea, shortness of breath, muscle aches and spasms, sweating, difficulty swallowing, tremors, rapid heart rate, and rapid breathing. The hormone surge causes physical changes in our body that may lead to serious physical health issues such as digestive disorders, heart disease, immune system suppression, and high blood pressure. It can bring on debilitating psychiatric symptoms such as depression, neurosis, hyper vigilance, panic attacks, and paranoia.

Are you someone who is unable to tolerate uncertainty, doubt, or unpredictability? Do you fear being caught off guard, therefore worry to prepare yourself for every possible outcome? Maybe you believe that if you worry enough and leave no stone unturned, you will come up with a solution. Or maybe worrying distracts you from your emotions or keeps your mind occupied until the future arrives.

Are you the type of person that starts worrying the moment your head hits the pillow?  Problems do seem worse at night when there is nothing to distract us from them, but choosing that particular time to do it will stimulate your mind and make falling asleep very difficult. Sleep cycles will be disturbed, and your sleep will not be restful and rejuvenating.

Some people feel a sense of accomplishment when they worry. They feel as if they are problem solving. But worrying and problem solving are two different things. Problem solving requires a logical plan of action. It is proactive—worrying is not. Dwelling on worst-cast scenarios does not help us deal with the problem or lead to solutions.

Some believe they can prevent things from happening by worrying about them. Or they may believe that if they worry about the worst case scenario, any outcome will be better by comparison. 

Sometimes worry is rooted in poor self-confidence. It is easier to worry about something we feel incapable of handling than to actually do something about it.  

There are parents who believe that worrying about their children proves they are devoted and care about them. They think other people see it the same way; that if they are not worrying, others will see them as bad parents. If your parent or parents were worriers you may believe that worrying shows love.  That could not be farther from the truth.

Many people worry about money; how they will pay their bills, fix their car, feed their family, save enough money to send their children to college, or pay for healthcare. Some worry about their investments, getting sued, or how safe their money is in the bank.

People worry about their business failing or about their jobs. What happens if they get fired or laid off?  What happens if they don’t get a promotion or raise? What happens if they don’t meet a deadline? What happens if they get caught in traffic and are late for work? Young people worry about school; finishing projects, taking tests, getting anything less than an “A.”

Safety is a major concern for chronic worriers. They worry about all the things that could possibly endanger their children; kidnapping, drugs, the influence of other children, violence in video games or on TV, or dying and leaving their children parentless. They worry about car crashes, plane crashes, and crossing the street. Some chronic worriers go out of their way to only make right turns when driving because they fear the risk of turning left and having to cross traffic. Many people worry about being the victim of a crime and how they would handle it.

Worriers may hyper-focus on their health or their family’s health. Every lump, bump, headache, and cough turns into a fantasized terminal illness. Some people worry about germs and cleanliness. Death is probably the biggest unknown any of us will face and many people worry about it.

Some people worry about what others think of them, about being judged, or about having their true self exposed. They fear vulnerability, making a mistake, or not being perfect.  Some worry about knowing their true selves and what they might discover behind the facade they show others.

The most useless focus of chronic worrying is dwelling on what happened in the past; things we can do nothing about.

Granted, there is much in life for us to worry about, but a constant stream of consuming doubts will paralyze us and ruin our quality of life. Chronic worrying overshadows everything and limits the time we have to experience all the positive thing in life. We cannot keep bad things from happening by worrying about them, but we can keep ourselves from enjoying what goes on in the present.

When chronic worrying dominates our thoughts, the mental space that should be available to receive solutions is blocked. Concentration on immediate tasks is nearly impossible when we are busy worrying about the future. Habitual fears, doubts, and worries waste our time while negating our ability to be present, productive, and successful.

If you are a chronic worrier, you have probably tried telling yourself not to worry and to think positive. That is like telling yourself to close your eyes for three minutes and not picture great big yellow polka dots. When you close your eyes, you will not be able to get the thought of great big yellow polka dots out of your head. Telling yourself to not do something makes you pay extra attention to it.  The very thing you are trying not to do becomes more prevalent in your mind.

Breaking the cycle of chronic worrying involves striking a balance between logic and emotional reaction. Some effective strategies for doing so are:

  • Ask yourself if the problem is solvable or unsolvable? If the problem is solvable, begin looking for solutions. If it is not, ask yourself: Is my concern realistic and rational? How likely is it that this will happen? Will this matter in ten years?
  • Learn to accept your feelings and face your fears instead of challenging them.
  • Learn to be decisive. The less time you give yourself to worry and the quicker you take action, the better you will feel.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation. It teaches you to stay focused on the present moment.
  • Set a designated time and place for worrying about everything and anything that is bothering you. Choose a time that will not interfere with sleep or scheduled responsibilities. Thirty minutes is the recommended amount of time for your worry session. When it is over, so is the worrying.
  • Keep a worry diary or make worry lists. Start each entry with , “I am worried that…” or “I am worried about…” Refer back to your list every few weeks and cross off the things you worried about that never happened, or write down how it happened differently than you expected.
  • Use the technique called “decatastrophizing.” Imagine the worst case scenario of your worry, think about the end result, and then decide how you will cope with it.
  • Eat a healthy diet and eat regularly to keep your blood sugar stable. That will have a beneficial effect on your state of mind. Cut down or eliminate caffeinated drinks and cigarette smoking. They all stimulate the nervous system and cause you to feel tense and jittery.
  • A half-hour of exercise three times a week will improve your mood, brighten your outlook, and give you an overall sense of well-being.
  • Practice relaxation techniques or meditation. Methods such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and deep breathing cause the brain waves to shift from beta rhythm which is a high-alert state of mind to alpha rhythm; a relaxed yet conscious state of mind.
  • Listen to calming music, use aromatherapy, or get massages.
  • Use alternative remedies such as herbs, homeopathy, tinctures, or Bach flower remedies. Always consult a holistic practitioner before using any of these remedies and have them supervise your treatment.
  • Acupuncture and Chinese medicine with a well-trained practitioner are safe ways to bring harmony to your body and mind.
  • Limit the time you spend with negative people, in negative environments, and around those who make you feel anxious.
  • When sharing your feelings, only talk to those who calm you, make you feel better, and help you gain perspective.

We cannot be certain about everything in life. We cannot control the world and every outcome. We can only control our reactions.

Worry cannot change the past or predict the future. The only moment we can influence is here and now.

Things will always happen the way they are supposed to, so do what you can, try your best, and then accept and surrender to life.

Randi Fine is the author of the groundbreaking book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing, the most comprehensive, most well researched, and most up-to-date book on this subject. In addition to helping survivors recognize their abuse and heal from it, this book teaches mental health professionals how to recognize and properly treat the associated abuse syndrome. She is also the author of Cliffedge Road: A Memoir, the first and only book to characterize the life-long progression of complications caused by narcissistic child abuse.

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