So how are worry, stress and anxiety different?
So worry – this is how I think about it and I can be argued with, I’m not sure that any of this is actually true. I am kind of throwing it out there, I’m reading a book on it. So if I’m wrong please tell me before the book is written but it seems to me that worry is a type of thinking. And our friend here Jack, he says that figments of my imagination are out to get me. That’s kind of the most common use of the imagination is just letting your imagination kind of go to the worrisome scenarios, getting kind of entranced or hypnotized by your worries and letting your imagination scare you because I think in a sense the most common – the most common unconscious use of the imagination is to drive ourselves crazy. So the bar is set pretty low, that’s the good news. We can learn to use it more on purpose and do better than that.
So worries is a type of thinking, it’s a repetitive kind of thinking of sometimes rumination, it’s generally troubled – it often has to do with things that are either in the past or in the future. It’s the opposite of be here now. It’s opposite of present. That doesn’t mean it’s bad and that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a function. But it’s we’re in our brain, we’re thinking about something we’re going over and over and over it. Again I think that’s because the adaptive function of worry, I always assume that something is there is an attempt by nature or by life to solve a problem or to give us an advantage.
So if you think about what could the advantage be of being able to go over a problem over and over and over in my mind? Well I think it’s kind of like if you have a big tangled ball of yarn or thread and you’re trying to untangle it, and you find a place that’s loosing, you pull it for a while and you get some looseness and then you get stuck again, so you turn the ball over and you find another loose place, and you free up some more stuff and you turn it over again and you free up some more stuff and if you keep doing that turning it over and over, looking at it from different angles, finding the loose places, finding more things that are not at together – if you persevere with it more often than not you’re going to get the whole thing untangled. And then go on to the next tangled mess that you find. But you are likely to get that one untangled and I think that’s the function of worry. It lets us — it makes our concerns transportable, so you can think about it at any time and that could be an advantage or a disadvantage. And I think that that depends on whether you’re using your brain or you’re being run by it. Your brain is an incredible organ. Your mind has something to do with it and at least in certain circumstances your mind can learn to use your brain in better ways. That’s what this is about.
So it’s very easy though for this adaptive function of problem solving and turning things over and over to become a habit, or to become repetitive, or to become ruminative and just kind of become its own thing. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that worry can serve kind of a magical function. There’s a magical unconscious function of worry. A couple of them actually, so one is that most things that you worry about never happen. Most things that you worry about never happen, and that’s an old rubric that we’ve all heard and I found myself wondering oh, is that really true? So I’ve been teaching this as a six-week class, it’s worrying well class, I have taught it a few times now, and I’ve asked people at the beginning of the class to list all the things that they find themselves repetitively worrying about, and then sometime later on we’ve just checked in with the first class which was about nine months ago to see how many of those things have happened. And not very many of them have happened. So I don’t know if anybody’s ever studied that really before but you could do it yourself by writing them down and then check in in about six months, or a year.
Now the interesting thing about that, the way that the brain works is at some unconscious level of the brain, the brain could conclude that the thing didn’t happen because you worried about it. That’s a function of — and there’s an old story about a woman who walks around her house. She’s an old woman, she’s walking around her house every day, mumbling walking around her house, walking around her house. She walks around her house all day long until she’s carved a rock around her house and then goes up to about the middle of her thighs and finally one of their neighbors can’t take it anymore and he goes over and he says you know, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you why you walk around your house all the day – everyday. And she says, “Well, I am keeping it safe from tigers”. And he says, “Well, we are in Indiana, there aren’t any tigers here”. And she says, “See.”
So it’s possible that we get rewarded for worrying because so many of those things don’t happen and at some magical unconscious primitive level of thought, those two things could possibly be connected. The other thing that has been researched is that in sometimes worrying about things distracts us from things that are actually bothering us, so that worrying about little things and do this and so on and so forth and always fussing and always worrying and always having something to fuss up about and to worry about actually distracts us from something that might be deeper and more emotional and actually be harder for us to take. And we know that that’s a function, that’s actually been studied so that worry prevents deeper richer more emotion latent thinking which typically comes in images and comes in the quiet times.