How Worry Was Hurting Me And Those I Love Most
The advice from a girlfriend that helped me change.
Author's Note: This article was scheduled for today’s publication months ago, well before the world turned upside down with the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike ever before, it’s nearly impossible not to feel the weight of stress and worry bearing down. If you’re like me, there was always “enough” worry to contend with before the pandemic erupted. How much harder it is today to breathe deeply and stay calm while stuck indoors, digesting the daily news and facing the unknowns of coronavirus fallout. This personal story includes wise words from a friend and from a seasoned therapist, but if needed don’t hesitate to call the CDC stress-anxiety hotline for help.
On social media I recently posted the meme, “Didn’t get much sleep last night but I did get a few solid hours of anxiety in,” followed by a trail of laugh-cry emojis. Many responded, piling on with a lot of LOLs and high-fives, much as I’d encouraged.
But truthfully, I wasn’t laughing on the inside. Worry wasn’t just waking me at night. Its presence was coloring my mood and clouding my judgment about what to say and how to say it. My worry was more than my problem — it was seeping into my family life and poisoning the air. It started innocently enough when my first child was born and intensified as my second appeared.
If there’s one worry that popped up repeatedly, it was falling — because I have a moderate fear of heights. I posited my anxiety on whatever stage the kids were in. Kids falling out of high chairs smack on their noggin? From the monkey bars? Yep, that’ll happen, and off to the ER we go. Climbing a tree? That child will fall and break their legs, arms or suffer a concussion — or all of the above. Off the edge of a mountain as we joyfully embark on a family hike? Probably. No fan of heights, this was a recurring nightmare.
When these worries paraded across my brain, instead of calibrating my words I performed my duty as mom, shrieking repeatedly, “Watch out!” “Not so high!” “Away from the edge!” It’s no wonder I became known in the family as Debbie Downer, a character hilariously played by the talented Rachel Dratch on Saturday Night Live.
I didn’t mean to stink up the room with my worry-phrases, but it was happening. Alas, now that my kids are young adults, my worries have only grown. Will they attend the right college? Discover the degree that makes them happy and potentially open up doors? Meet nurturing friends who will help them be their best self? Find their soulmate? Avoid situations that negatively alter the course of life? And why weren’t they answering my texts?!
Clearly, my worry is a problem. For my sake and theirs I need to overcome it, because though there’s a difference between worry and anxiety, worry contributes to general anxiety, a diagnosable condition that affects women twice as often as men. Yet another thing to worry about, no?
What helped shift my thinking on handling worry was not a book. Not a podcast. Not an app. It was a long face-to-face conversation with a friend. My girlfriend Anne’s simple-yet-profound way of talking about the utter uselessness of worry hit home. “If there’s something you can do about it, do it, but the passive act of worrying doesn’t affect any outcome.”
My takeaway? Act if possible — but then, drop it.
Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist in private practice for 25 years, told me, “I like to ask people, ‘If you weren’t worried about it, what would you feel?’ It’s usually helplessness or lack of control — dealing with ambiguity. And the older we all get, the more ambiguity there is.”
Rutherford’s challenge has me thinking about identifying the fear — this ambiguous boogey monster — behind the worry, and dealing with that.
Good friend as she is, Anne wasn’t done and explained her resolve to also banish anger and guilt in her life. She gives herself permission to feel the anger before constructively acting to resolve the situation and, finally, mentally discarding it. Rutherford, author of Perfectly Hidden Depression, raises the risk of anger turning to bitterness.
“Bitterness is something you want to avoid at all costs. It turns your life sour as well as the lives of those around you who are trying to love you.” Anne also pointed out that if I’ve ever uttered, “I wish I would have x,” it is guilt bubbling up. But once something is done, it can’t be undone, she mused.
It’s a tension she knows well because she raised her daughters while her professional career blossomed. She acknowledges she missed recitals and sports games, accepts she made choices, and doesn’t look back. Rutherford says to take responsibility for things you may later recognize as a mistake — make amends, apologize if needed — but don’t allow guilt to turn into shame.
“It’s just not helpful.” Worry, anger and guilt create an easy acronym (WAG) for Anne to capture her resolve to eradicate what she recognizes doesn’t feed happiness. For my part, it’s an enormous W — worry — that threatens to rob me of my joy.
I realize I’m way overdue to face this damaging drip-drip worry cycle. Breaking free will be liberating, and one Debbie Downer is more than enough, anyway. I’ll let Rachel Dratch play the role uncontested.
Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including USA Today, the Washington Post and the Week magazine. Find her at www.kathrynstreeter.com.