• How Do I NOT Worry?

    Three Little Birds

    When my friend Betsey and I were stressing out in graduate school, we found some relief singing along to “Three Little Birds” with Bob Marley and the Wailers. You know it– 

    “Don’t worry about a thing ‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright” Singing, “Don’t worry about a thing ‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright!”

    Listen: Three Little Birds – YouTube

    Sounds Good … But I’m Still Worrying   

    But back then, as young woman making her way in the world, NOT worrying didn’t feel like an option. Rather, it seemed a normal part of the graduate education package. This form of anxiety propelled me, as it did many of my classmates. Given that state of mind, while I liked the buoyant sense I got when Betsey and I belted out “Don’t worry …,” Bob’s words weren’t ringing true for me. I definitely did not think that everything would be OK if I failed my tests, was late handing in assignments, fell behind, didn’t measure up to my professors’ expectations, couldn’t pay my bills, etc.

    Graduate school was an exciting time in which I learned a lot, discovered some new passions and met interesting people … but I also didn’t sleep or eat much. The trifecta of constant worry, insufficient shuteye and poor nutrition not surprisingly led me to have a number of weird physical ailments during that time.  

    Of course, a worrying mindset gladly accompanies any life phase or circumstance. It may be low-level worry that we are able to manage … or out-of-control, emotionally crippling worry. Most of us have experienced both kinds—I had the low-level worry most days during graduate school and then, a handful of experiences of paralyzing worry, such as dread of public speaking during conference season (I did fine, after I had a few presentations under my belt) or fear that my ailments were actually serious health conditions (they weren’t).

    Life Lessons on Worry

    Since graduate school, I have had lots of stressful times (like most people do in life). Yet, I learned valuable lessons from graduate school and my early professional years: 

    • I cannot control emotions that arise in my mind, like worry.  
    • Worry will always come and go with challenges, hardships, and even joys. 
    • But I do have a choice about what I do with this and other difficult emotions when they “cold call” me.
    • I can tap into help from myself and others to help deal with difficult emotions. 

    Taming the Worry

    I could allow simmering worry to constantly propel me to act—but that gets way too tiring. I could try ignoring the worry—but we all know that doesn’t work either. The tactic that has worked best for me in recent years is taming the worry, rather than emboldening it to “be in charge of me.” I try to face each specific worry head on for a few moments, acknowledge it, accept it, figure out what is at its core, and then self-soothe while riding its wave out. I think that the self-soothing is what Bob Marley was singing about: We can find that stable place within each of us where we can be “alright” and access peace, even in the face of suffering.   

    Mindfulness Skills

    Develop mindfulness skills is one way into taming worry. Many of these skills are simple (truly)—the trick is being patient as you do the work of building a mindfulness practice. Try allowing yourself the time to experiment with different mindfulness techniques and then practice techniques that you like with enough frequency that they become routine for you. (Remember that, on average, it takes 3 weeks for an action to become a habit.) It took me a bit of time to regularly devote just five minutes in the morning to meditative activities—at first, my mind and body got and stayed distracted after only a few seconds, but as time went on, I found that I could tolerate focusing on the mindful activity a little longer. I am still quite a newbie to mindfulness practice, yet it has proved to be a gift to myself that keeps on giving. It provides me a framework to take better care of myself, cope with hardships, and maintain hope.

    Here are examples of how I might utilize mindfulness to deal with anxiety. Say I feel the start of tiny bubbles of worry gurgling in my chest:

    • I can PAUSE and FOCUS ON MY BREATH. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Give myself over to it for a minute or so.
    • Instead of avoiding the feeling, I can USE MEDIATIVE TECHNIQUES such as RAIN to tune into, accept and understand what is going on in my body and mind.
    • I can USE CALMING PHRASES in response to rising difficult emotions (I might even employ the Bob’s melodious tune).
    • If I have time, I might TAKE A WALK OR DO SOME OTHER MINDFUL MOVEMENT (yoga, dance, etc.). 
    • I might take in nature and its wonders. 
    • If I find myself reacting to the worry despite my efforts, rather than just riding it out, I TRY TO BE COMPASSIONATE RATHER THAN CRITICAL OF MYSELF. I CAN REMIND MYSELF THAT IT IS HARD TO TAME WORRY AND THAT WORRY WILL PASS … and it always does (even if it returns oftentimes).
    • I might use META MEDIATION or other CONTEMPLATION forms, like PRAY, to solidify my hope in going forth in dealing with worry.
    • I might seek out opportunities to LAUGH—hanging out with a funny person in my life, listening to a comedian or even just quickly visiting web and social media sites that make me giggle—as a respite from the worry.   

    The bottom line is that mindfulness strategies help me dealing with anxiety, so I use them.  You have to do what works for you. Mindfulness is one broad strategy, but there are also other ways to effectively deal with symptoms of anxiety and treat them. For example, my mental health has also benefitted from the support of family and friends, psychoeducation and counseling. Medication is another option.

    If you want help working through the process of exploring your anxiety, its origin and your reactions to it, as well as identifying and learning to practice techniques that will aid you in lessening the grip that it has on you, please reach out to the Mindful Counseling Center.  Our therapists are experienced in helping people with their anxiety. They would be honored to assist you.

    Article by Kristin Littel

    See the self-care support page on Mindful Counseling Center website for ideas for mindfulness practice: mediative activities, guided imagery and tap into creativity.