I am a worrier. I am not just any old amateur worrier either. If worrying were an Olympic event, I would be a gold medalist. My mother likes to say I come from a long line of worriers. She is a worrier and her mother was a worrier before her. When I was young, I never wanted to believe I’d grow up to be like my mother. Turns out, like so many other things I had planned for in my adult life, I was wrong.
I don’t know for sure what makes a worrier. Is it genes or learned behavior or life experience? My grandmother lived through the historic hurricane of 1938. She used to tell me stories about going to the fire station in town to help identify the rows and rows of bodies lined up along the floor. When my grandfather first moved his family to their home on the beach she would sit up all night. While her husband and children slept she sat, smoking one cigarette after another, watching the ocean so she would be ready if it started to come towards the house. Eventually she did get over that, but I remember she still spent a lot of time staring at the ocean.
I’m sure this was one of the things that caused her to become a worrier. It sounds like a pretty good reason in my book. Often an unexpected life event, some type of loss or trauma, leaves us seeing the word as an unsafe place. Or it could be a betrayal or a broken heart that shatters our faith in our fellow humans and leaves us wounded and feeling vulnerable. Sometimes, excessive worrying comes from living in a home where one or more family members struggles with alcohol or substance abuse. When home life is chaotic, when emotions are unpredictable and volatile, or when we’ve experienced a traumatic event we have not yet healed from, we become hyper-vigilant. We never truly relax. We learn to read the emotions of others so that we know how to behave and when to make ourselves scarce. We look over our shoulders and peer around every corner waiting for that next thing.
Some of these worrying skills turn out to be pretty useful. Being aware of the needs and emotions of others is a handy Mom Skill. Balancing unpredictable emotional outbursts with daily life certainly comes in handy for anyone raising a toddler. In my case, when I had four kids age eight and under, balancing the physical and emotional needs of multiple small children turned out to be something I was really good at. Worriers are often caretakers as well. We sometimes take care of others at the expense of being able to take care of ourselves. We don’t vocalize our own needs. Often, we are so involved with others that we don’t even know what our own needs are.
There has to be a happy medium between taking care of the things we can control and wasting time worrying about the things that are out of our hands. Feeding the kids a healthy meal for dinner, making sure they get all of their shots and get their teeth cleaned every six months, all of that is in our control. Holding back the ocean is not.
What I’ve come to realize is that bad things are going to happen sometimes, that’s just life, but there are going to be lots of good things too! The funny thing is that most of the bad things I worried about never actually happened and some things I didn’t think to worry about did. Go figure!
I know there’s a cure out there somewhere. I’ve tried everything people say will help. I’ve tried prayer, yoga, long walks, meditation and red wine to name a few! Maybe I’m just not trying them in the right combinations? In the meantime, I found a poem that was written for us worriers in the latest edition of the New England Review. The last stanza is my favorite.
“Don’t worry that you’ve left
your doors unlocked, the oven or coffeepot on.
Don’t worry that running out of concrete fears—
a flat tire, bad test results, suspicious charge
to your account—will leave you open to the vague
and nameless dread you’d do anything to avoid.
Don’t try to explain, even to those you love,
the dilemmas you’ve faced by 9 a.m., the deathbeds
you’ve visited, disasters you’ve seen or averted.
Don’t worry that worry might be all you have.”
Click here to view the entire “Anti-Anxiety Poem” by Carrie Shipers. Thanks Carrie!