Is It Time to Worry Yet?

By Maureen McKane, LCSW

Worry seems important, but it’s not necessary. Learn to stop worrying before you need to.

A big brother and his little sister are standing in the icy cold night watching the neighbor’s house burn down. They were roused from sleep because their house might go next. Standing there watching firemen, flames and chaos, he tells her, “Don’t worry Scout. I’ll tell you when it’s time to worry.” The scene is in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Big brother, Jem, was right. The children were safe and so was the occupant of the house that burned. I like to remember the line, which comes up at other times in the book. Life brings us calamities. No one is immune to those. But worries are what we contrive in our own heads.

Have you ever listened hard to the sound of another person’s worry? In 5 or 10 minutes you have heard the same mantra repeated many times. What can be the purpose, you wonder. They list all the worst that could happen. Then the worst-of-the worst scenario is detailed. Then how intolerable that would be. Then back to the list again.

It is as if the worried mind believes that by rehearsing terrible events you can prevent them. Another part of the mind, what we call executive function, says, no, that’s illogical. But the emotional mind rushes back to the worry-go-round.

In high school I watched a worrier in our family chew all day on such a thought. I would leave for school hearing a gloomy tale. I would spend a whole day on other matters, from math to boys to teacher’s ways to whatever book might open up a new horizon. Then I would return home and hear the continuing gloom on eternal rewind.

I made my own rule from that: I will not worry until there is something actual to worry about. Since then life has dealt a few actual calamities. These are the times when the executive mind and the emotional mind are both needed. Because I haven’t worn out my brain with invented worrying, there is energy for both minds in a time of crisis.

Practice training your mind to be prepared. When worry starts take these steps:

  1. Check to see if the danger is actual, I mean, right now.
  2. If it isn’t, remind yourself, “Now is not the time to worry.” You’ll know when it is.
  3. Practice slow breathing. Inhale to a slow count of 4. Stop. Exhale to a count of 5. Stop. Repeat.
  4. Stop and think about past moments when you did something right. You have the ability to deal when you need to.
  5. Get back to the immediate needs in your life: tend children, cook food, mow lawn.

Life is in the little things. Life is right now. You might have to face something in the future, but then again you might not. What a waste if the bad thing never happens and you missed your life in the meantime. Now is not the time to worry.

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