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The Question That Drives Your Worries

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJune 24, 2019

Many of the people who come to me for treatment are dealing with constant worry. They tell me they worry about everything: their health, their work, their family members, the environment—the list goes on.

They typically find that as soon as one worry is resolved, another takes its place. They might be on pins and needles waiting for the results of a medical test; no sooner have they gotten good news from their doctor than another worry rushes in to take its place. No wonder this type of generalized anxiety is associated with physical tension, exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping.

I tend to be a worrier myself. I can worry about the smallest things—Will I find parking? Will I be on time? Will I get sick? 

All these worries boil down to one fear-driven question: Am I going to be okay?

We’re afraid that our world is going to blow up, and so we’re constantly on guard looking for how it’s going to happen.

It’s like we’re in a big house at night, convinced someone is going to break in and hurt us or our family. We think we hear something in the basement, so we run down to see if we left a window open. When all is well in the basement, we immediately worry that maybe we left the front door unlocked. There’s little relief each time our fear is a false alarm because we still think a break-in is imminent. It’s just a question of when and how.

Lasting peace comes from realizing that you are going to be okay—and not because everything will go the way you want it to. In fact, some of the things you worry about may actually happen.

You won’t be able to find a parking space.

You’ll be late.

Your car will break down.

You’ll miss the train.

You’ll have problems at work.

Your health will deteriorate.

The people you love the most will experience suffering.

Instead of wondering whether something bad will happen, the better question is – how will you deal with it? Because no matter what happens in your life, you will need to respond in some way. And while we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control how we cope with it.

It can tempting to then just shift our worry to the question of coping: Will I be able to handle it? How will I cope? What if I’m overwhelmed? I probably don’t know you, but I’m fairly certain you’ll be able to meet any challenge. Why? Because you’ve lived this long and you’ve made it this far. And while you may have been overwhelmed at times, that didn’t stop you. You kept going.

At some point, life has brought you to your knees, and you got back up. And here you are. Still going. Still breathing. Willing to be overwhelmed at times. Willing to get knocked down again. Willing to meet life as it comes.

The solution for constant worry, then, is to embrace life’s uncertainty. That means welcoming the unknown and accepting that you have no idea how things are going to turn out. Instead of seeing your lack of control as a problem, you can see it as part of life’s deep truth. You didn’t decide to arrive here any more than I did, and none of us ultimately calls the shots. Our task is to respond to what life brings us.

A family friend once shared with me the words her grandmother had given her decades ago: Don’t pray that your life will be free from difficulties. Pray for the strength and wisdom to handle them. At the end of your life, the most important question won’t be whether your life was easy. What will matter is the amount of skill and grace you brought to walking the path that was set in front of you.

I’m fairly certain there’s something you’ve been worried about recently, even today. Can you shift your mindset from a focus on how things are going to go and focus instead on what you can control and how you will meet whatever comes your way? With that resolve in mind, fix your attention on what is real and present and the good you want to bring to this world.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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