The other night I was snuggled up to Dan in bed, knowing that in a few days he would be leaving for a business trip to Vancouver. While he was fast asleep, I was struggling to relax because my mind was busy scanning everything that could go wrong on his trip. I found myself worrying about whether the plane he was going to be in would crash and all the aftershocks that would follow his death – the funeral, the eulogy…(sigh).
I know. These were some very dark thoughts.
I noticed that my throat immediately began to tighten and my heart raced. In one moment of worrying I had triggered the fight or flight response in my body and all systems were on red alert as my brain prepared for the danger, even if it was an imagined one.
To reassure myself, I held onto Dan even tighter and as I felt his chest rise and fall my brain was like, “He’s still breathing. He’s still alive!” And then I felt the tears begin to flow. As I felt flooded with gratitude in my heart, here was the exact thought that popped into my head:
Even if he died in a plane crash I would be okay because I had married my best friend and experienced true love.
(I know these were such crazy thoughts I’m even embarrassed to write them.)
But as sadness overcame me, I started to calm down and feel better. The tears made me feel like I was really appreciating what I had… and then I fell asleep.
In the morning I woke up, looked at Dan (who was still alive by the way) and I had this WTF moment of epiphany.
Did I have to worry that the worst possible thing might happen to him in order to feel grateful and appreciative of my life? That would be pretty messed up.
I was so used to this pattern of worrying that it had gone under the radar for so long. It was like I suddenly caught myself in an invisible web. I realized that worrying was the default mode I inherited from my own parents and grandparents.
I believe worries are like that, they can be entrusted from one generation to the next like hand me downs, genetically encoded in our DNA.
Since my paternal grandparents were both Holocaust survivors, it made sense that worry would be in our bloodstream. After experiencing traumatic events, you learn to stay on guard because you think, “I wasn’t prepared for it last time and look what happened!”
Just like holding an amulet or kissing the roof of a car when you enter a tunnel– somehow the ritual of worrying makes us feel protected. It allows us to feel like we’ve defended ourselves preemptively against a strike we can’t anticipate.
Since we can’t control many things in life that remain great mysteries, we innocently believe that we can worry them away. As if we can strike first before we’re knocked out.
We think, “If I worry about everything that could go wrong before it does, I’ll be able to prepare myself when it hits.”
That’s what I was doing when I was worrying about Dan’s business trip. I actually believed that if I thought of all the people in my life I would one day lose, it would somehow protect me from losing them. That if I felt all the pain now, I would be able to avoid feeling it later– but that’s not actually how it works.
First of all, gratitude should be coming from a place of love, not fear. Gratitude is supposed to be about lovingly appreciating what we have now, not because we might lose it later but because, as the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “life is available only in the present moment.”
If we’re too busy worrying about every future possibility and tragedy, we actually miss being in the magical presence of the here and now. We miss living our life to the fullest because we can never relax enough to actually enjoy it.
If you’ve been a worrier all your life, it doesn’t mean it’s too late to change who you are. Because the truth is, it’s not who you are, it’s just a learned strategy you’ve developed in order to feel a sense of control when you can’t possibly know what’s going to happen throughout your life.
I believe there’s another way. Through transformational coaching, I can help you begin to change these stuck old patterns into new strategies that last.
Imagine your mind this way: it’s as if all this time you’ve been operating on old software information built by worry, doubt and fear that keeps crashing and slowing you down. But what if we could update to a new operating system built by love, trust and surrender, where you could feel more grateful, calm and self- assured that you can handle whatever stress comes your way.
There is a lot more I want to say here about the effect worrying has on the brain, but I will save that for next week’s newsletter.
For now I will leave you with some reflective questions that you can journal about or leave your answers in the comment section below: