“What, me worry?” Excellent advice for good mental health

Are you a ‘worry wart?’ If so, then read on. If not, then I wouldn’t worry about it—unless you’re worried that you might miss something good’.

Life can occasionally be difficult, and worrying seems for the most part to be normal and reasonable. But before we get bogged down in figuring out how much is too much, let’s go a step further: What’s the point of worrying at all? What purpose does it serve?

I define worrying as obsessive thought over what could happen, might happen, will happen, has already happened, or might some day possibly happen. The key word here is ‘thought.’ There is constructive thinking, and then there is pointless—even destructive—thinking. So it’s not an issue of whether worrying is always good or bad; it’s a question of what purpose, if any, that it serves.

Let’s take, for example, a student whose SAT exam is approaching. To worry about the upcoming test seems, on the surface, a reasonable thing to do. Wouldn’t a failure to worry about it be an indication of a refusal to treat it as significant? Not quite—and this is where an important distinction comes into play: Worry versus planning. If your SAT is coming up and you start to worry, then you can validate that worry, at first, by saying, ‘OK, this is important.’ But the crucial next question is: ‘What can I do about it?’ The most obvious option at this point would be to sign up for a preparation course, or buy a question book to help you study. The point here is not what you do, so much as replacing the worry with action.

Planning is more constructive than worrying—provided you come up with a workable strategy and, most importantly, actually follow it through. (We’ll put off procrastination to another column.) Planning, in and of itself, is a valuable tool. It replaces empty worry with a call to action. This is particularly important, because some people are afraid to let go of their worry. Worry does (at least initially) serve as a message from the subconscious to ‘pay attention’ to something. Not a bad thing! If you didn’t experience anxiety, you’d never pay your bills, or look before crossing the street, or do anything else that’s crucial. But this initial form of worry is nothing more than a signal or a cue—NOT a lifestyle. If this perfectly rational unease starts to take on a life of its own, then you have the beginning stages of mental illness, neurosis, dysfunction, stress or whatever you want to call it.

When I first started my career, I would come home from work and sometimes worry about things I had left on my desk at the office. Had I remembered to do this or that? It distracted me from my ability to relax and have a good time. Early on, I figured out a way to cure this. I would ask myself, ‘Is this item important enough to warrant going back to the office?’ In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer was clearly, ‘No.’ Then, I reasoned, if it’s not worth going back to the office tonight, then it’s not worth thinking about tonight, either. And thinking about it will do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to change the reality of it. It took a little persistence to get this mental technique down, but now it has become routine.

For those of you who worry that you didn’t lock the door, or maybe left an appliance on in the house, this approach can sometimes be helpful as well. Ask yourself: ‘Is it worth driving back twenty minutes to double check?’ This isn’t rhetorical—you should really mean it. If you judge it worthwhile, and consider all the consequences for turning around to check the stove or light or door lock, then do it. Even if you repeatedly go back and you’ve never left anything on, it’s not a waste of time. It’s an opportunity to remind yourself that the track record of your worry isn’t very good. It can be difficult to refuse to go back and check, but when you frequently find that everything’s fine (oven off, door locked, whatever), you’ll become more confident about your ability to live with, and control, your worries.

For over 53 years, Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman has posed the perennial question: ‘What, me worry?’ His advice is undeniably sound. You can take it a step further: You can still treat things as important, if they merit it, by simply replacing the worry with action (something poor Alfred apparently never did).

If the anxiety is valid, then deal with it. If it’s about something over which you have no immediate control, then take the plunge: Let it go! Dare to think about something else. It’s not easy at first, but the results are rewarding—and the Land of No Worry can be an emotionally healthy place to live.