Last week, I had to give a presentation about rapid cancer diagnosis services at a conference.
As you may know, I managed to overcome my severe generalised anxiety about 10 years ago. But the thought of standing in front of hundreds of people presenting my work still triggers a hefty fear response. Whenever I thought of it, my stomach knotted and an icy steel hand attempted to crush my throat.
For two weeks, I woke up at 3 am, endless thoughts whirling in my mind like deck-chairs in a hurricane.
What if I go blank and embarrass myself? Will more qualified people question my methods and I won’t have the answers? Will the audience discover that I don’t really know what I’m doing?
And what if I burp? Or fall off the podium?
All hope for a restful night’s sleep was wrecked by my unproductive rumination. And my days grew darker as the incessant worries fed my apprehension. Mutating a simple 10-minute presentation into a confidence-eating, mood-killing monstrosity, out to destroy me.
Just because, sometimes, I forget my own advice.
The vital reason why we worry
Throughout our species’ evolution, the ability to anticipate threats and foresee catastrophic events before they happen (a.k.a. worry) was a fundamental survival mechanism. The mind learned to retain memories of negative experiences and project them onto the future to extrapolate potential sources of danger.
To keep us safe.
Imagine, Mrs Neanderthal was ambushed by a mountain lion on her way to the river. Running as fast as she can, she scrambles over dense vegetation and hides in thick undergrowth. She escapes the beast. Heart racing, shaken and bruised, but otherwise unscathed.
Yet her mind will record the incident.
And next time she embarks on the same journey, alarm bells will ring. Her mind recalls the past experience and triggers a fear response. Just in case. So, she will be vigilant, anticipate a mountain lion (whether it’s there or not) and hide in good time if required.
She will get to the river and back without being mauled. Happy to see another day.
So, short-term worrying is a healthy and vital mechanism to safe our life. Until it becomes obsessive...
The tragic consequences of obsessive worrying
Now imagine, Mrs Neanderthal knew she had to go down to the river every day. And, instead of warning her once the journey starts, her mind becomes obsessed and reminds her of the lion trauma all day long.
Now, she wakes screaming, remembering a nightmare of the ferocious fangs digging into her flesh. She struggles through the day, her thoughts consumed by the dread of the impending danger. Stabs of terror paralysing her while she tries to focus on her work.
The walk to the river becomes more terrifying every time she thinks about it. Until she can no longer face it. Until she can no longer function. Anticipating danger everywhere, she hides in the darkness of her cave. Where there is no threat.
And no joy, no new experiences, no growth. No life.
Yes, short-term worry keeps us safe. But if we don't stop obsessive worrying, it becomes habitual. And steals our life, peace of mind and happiness. Dampens new experiences.
Or renders them impossible altogether.
The entire week before my presentation, I wished I could hide in a cave somewhere. Or maybe catch the flu.
So, I wouldn’t have to present. When, in fact, my chances of success and failure were equal. And it was conceivable that I would have a great time.
But my mind was obsessed with worrying. For one simple reason.
The devastating reason why we worry too much
Our mind is programmed to worry in potentially dangerous situations. So, what happens when we perceive life itself as a threat? We worry all the time, right?
And this happens when we are unaware of our true, inner worth.
Because, if we believe that our worth depends on our achievements, every failure, mistake and criticism will endanger our fragile construct of imaginary esteem.
If we feel unlovable, we perceive every miscommunication, embarrassment or “selfish” demand as a relationship killer. And if we don’t believe in our abilities, feel too powerless to cope with life, danger lurks in every shadow.
So, our mind worries non-stop.
About other people’s approval, their judgements and opinions about us. About disappointing others, humiliating ourselves and being uncovered as a fraud. About yesterday’s plunders. And tomorrow’s threats.
Until worrying becomes a constant habit. An automated response to life. And happiness, freedom and light-heartedness are lost.
But there is another way.
How to stop obsessive worrying (even if it's become habitual)
We can overcome obsessive worrying in 2 simple, yet powerful, steps:
- 1Boost our self-worth to strengthen our self-belief (so our mind knows we can cope with new challenges)
- 2Interrupt the habitual, automated worry pattern that results from prolonged, obsessive worrying
If you have completed the 7-day “Self-Worth Booster” email course which is part of the free Healthy Self-Worth Starter Kit, you will know that the key to boosting self-worth is to become aware that you ARE worth personified.
That worth is the essence of your being and NOTHING can strip it away. EVER.
But how to we break the worry cycle if it has already become habitual?
The answer is with mindfulness, pattern interrupt and persistence.
Be mindful of your thoughts. Recognise when you worry and then act. I like to interrupt the toxic pattern with the affirmation “All is well. I am safe.”
Followed by sending love to the situation or person I worry about (I just imagine a stream of love).
This distracts the mind. At least for a while.
Especially at the beginning, you will have to repeat the pattern interrupt many times. Your mind needs to break an old, ingrained habit. And this takes repetition, practice and persistence.
But it is worth the effort.
How to stop your worries from destroying your happiness
Worrying is human nature. But while it’s instigated by evolution, it’s escalated by a mind that lacks self-worth.
And perpetuated by habit.
If we ever want to stop obsessive worrying, we have to take responsibility and retrain our mind. By reinforcing our true, inherent worth and interrupting the worry pattern whenever it happens.
My presentation went brilliantly, by the way.
But it might also have been a complete disaster. Humiliating me to the core, shattering my confidence and bones (if I really would have fallen off the podium).
But, in either case, worrying in advance was futile. Because weeks or days before the inciting event, the outcome, whatever it may be, remains unknown.
Whether we worry or not.
All worrying achieves is that we are cranky, anxious and annoyed today.
So, the much better strategy is to wait for something to happen, and then decide whether worrying is warranted. Instead of worrying until something happens and then decide whether our worry was justified.
And waste otherwise happy days (and nights) in the process.
So, say it with me. I AM worth. All is well. Lots of love…
And today won't be lost to the worries about tomorrow.