We live our lives in three timeframes: The Past, The Present, and The Future. How we approach those three dimensions has a big effect on the amount of stress we experience.
For example, looking forward to the future with pleasant anticipation can be motivating and exciting. But if it’s filled with worry and dread, it will be unpleasant and stressful.
In the current pandemic, with all of its uncertainties, worry is a common, normal, and understandable emotion. It can also be unhelpful and stressful. Fortunately, there are constructive ways to diminish its impact. A phrase popped into my head thirty years ago when a patient told me that her family might have to move to another city. I asked her when this was happening. She said, “It’s not for sure and it won’t happen for about a year.” My reply was, “That sounds like a lot of long-distance worrying to me.” It’s a term I’ve used often ever since.
My definition of “Long-Distance Worrying” is worrying about something way ahead of time. One of my patients called it “Borrowing trouble from the future.” The French philosopher Montaigne said, “My life has been a series of catastrophes – most of which never happened!” Worrying is a very common emotion, intended to help us ward off or prepare for danger. But it can also lead to unhelpfully spinning our wheels in a continuous loop of negative self-talk.
There’s a saying that, if you cross the bridge before you come to it, you’ll have to pay the toll twice. Research shows that most of the things we worry about never come to pass. And, incidentally, that patient and her family didn’t have to move after all.
I suggest three ways to deal with Long-Distance Worrying: Defer, Deflect, or Confront.
But first, Get the Facts. Get as much accurate information as you can. This is especially important during this pandemic where there is a lot of misinformation and speculation going around.
Whenever I’m waiting for test results (for a patient, relative, friend or myself) my motto is, “Don’t worry about things until you know you have something to worry about.” And my corollary is, “If there is something to worry about, you’ll have all the time in the world to worry about then. You don’t have to start early.” It’s a mental discipline but that philosophy has saved me (and many others) countless hours of anguish and upset. In simple terms, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take it one step at a time.”
It can be hard to push thoughts out of your head. Diversion and distraction can help you do that. Grab a magazine, call a friend, do a crossword, watch some funny videos, turn on some music, go for a bike ride, work in the garden, do some cooking – anything to take your mind off the worry thoughts that are distressing you.
There are times when we shouldn’t ignore or push worrisome thoughts aside; when we have to face reality. There’s a constructive, structured way to do that. The alternative to worrying is not complacency or burying your head in the sand. I’m not suggesting naïve or willful blindness. And with the coronavirus, paying attention to our apprehensions is the wise and responsible thing to do. But there’s an alternative to worry.
I call it “concern.” Here’s how I distinguish the two:
- Worry is an emotion; Concern is an intellectual exercise.
- Worry is reactive; Concern is proactive
- Worry is passive and stressful; Concern is action-oriented and constructive
- Worry is problem-oriented; Concern is solution-oriented.
- (And my favourite, from a seminar participant years ago,)
- Worry is what I choke on; Concern is what I chew on.
There’s an exercise you can do called Creative Worrying. Do it in writing by asking and answering four questions:
- What’s the worst that can happen? What’s my greatest Fear? Write that down. (This might relate to heath, employment and/or business concerns.)
- How likely is it to happen? (that’s a guess but a bit of a reality check.) For example, what % of the population has tested positive for the virus? What % had to be hospitalized? What % needed ICU? What % had succumbed to the illness?
- If it did happen, what would I do to handle it? Specifically, if I did get sick or tested positive, what steps would I take to deal with it? Same with financial issues.
- What can I do now to either prevent it or prepare for it? In the current situation, this is the most important question to answer. Physical distancing, self-isolating, and meticulous hygiene would top the list; planning how to get groceries and other supplies; how to keep in touch with family and friends; making financial decisions and arrangements; how to work from home if possible; what to do if you own a business; updating documents such as wills and powers of attorney.
Once you’ve done the exercise, you now have a roadmap, a blueprint for how to proceed. Further worry is neither helpful nor necessary. Just start acting on the items on your list and do all you can to protect yourself and your loved ones.
We will always worry at times like these. It’s a natural reaction. But these strategies can help you lessen the worry and feel more control during these uniquely uncertain times.
David delivers the sage advice of an MD, packaged with the wit and wisdom only a motivational speaker can offer. He takes direct aim at the bane of the beleaguered twenty-first century citizen: stress, burn-out, non-stop change, and the elusive balance between work and life.
David Posen, M.D., Member of the Medical Psychotherapy Association of Canada
author of The Little Book of Stress Relief and Always Change A Losing Game