This is not an instruction. It’s a genuine question. With so much cause for worry, can we control how much we do it? The answer may surprise you.
Where does worry come from?
I used to be an expert worrier. I inherited the habit from my Mum who was even better at it. She said she would even catch herself worrying about worrying. We have so much responsibility and there seem to be too many things which may catch us out. So how can we possibly achieve peace of mind?
I had a wonderful holiday with my Mum in Kalkan on Turkey’s beautiful south east coast. One warm evening we sat at a table outside a small café run by a brother and sister. The brother cooked and the sister served the food. Mum commented on how serene and contented the woman was. Then she said ‘I wish I could be more like her- so serene. I wish I could stop worrying so much.’
At that point, having lost my hearing several years before, I had started what became a life-long research project into taking control of my own thoughts and achieving more inner peace. So I replied to Mum, with all my new-found enthusiasm, ‘You can stop worrying. It is possible’. She wanted to believe it, but I could see that she felt too entrenched in her worry habit.
One year later she died. Olive, my Mum, was someone who I would have wanted to be friends with if she had not been my mother. As it was, I got both the mother and the best friend. Her loss was, and still is for me, deep and devastating. I feel that I carry several wonderful legacies from her including her belief in learning and individual potential, her humour and her ability to talk to anyone. I also felt that after the conversation holiday that I carried a positive legacy about worry: I decided to honour her desire to stop doing it.
The great news is that it worked. I was, in essence, right. You can stop worrying. And life improves immeasurably when you do. Mum died in 2002 and I have wondered several times during this appalling epidemic what she would have made of it. The causes for worrying have multiplied, but would it have helped her, and does it help us? No! In face we could regard the current situation as a great training ground for keeping our peace of mind.
So how to stop? Coaching is a good way to support your progress. I benefited from coaching for several years. I remember one of the best questions I was asked by the superb Eric Decker when talking about seeking approval and feeling anxious about what people thought:
‘Approval on whose terms?’
Try asking yourself that one. It's powerful. And try out the ideas below for yourself.
Your anti-worry kit
1. You control your thoughts, not the other way round.
You can tell yourself what to think. You can quieten the ‘worry voice’ in your head. Remember this and try it out. It takes practice.
Our ancient brain, the amygdala, is programmed to scan for threats and risk. It was designed to help keep us alive and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ chemicals which are useful in genuine situations of danger. Mo Gawdat in ‘Solve for Happy’ cites studies which show our tendency to think negatively. For example did you know that we use more neurons (about 2/3) to detect negative experiences while positive ones have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds to move to our long-term memory? And ‘prospect theory’ shows how we tend to make decisions based on avoiding a negative experience rather than wanting a positive one.
You can choose to replace worried brain chatter with focusing on something in the here and now – a sight, taste, sound or small – in exquisite detail. Just 10-12 seconds will be enough to ‘release’ your thoughts. The release this provides and pause is enough to let you switch to what you want to think about.
3. Check the bigger picture of your time and resources
It’s easy when we are stressed and overwhelmed to feel we have no control. But we do have control and certain choices. The trick, when we feel this way is to ‘pan out’ and see the worries in context. Try asking yourself ‘How important will this feel in 1 day, 1 week and 1 year’s time?’. Our resources are finite. Imagine your time, energy, health and money as a pile of gold bars. Do you want to spend them on worrying – or more positive activities?
4. Reflect and check in with yourself
If you are a champion worrier like my Mum was, you may end up beating yourself up for not being better at stopping worrying. Spot this, use the micro-meditation/contemplation technique above, and go easy on yourself. Make time, however brief, on a regular basis to just reflect calmly and pat yourself on the back. Record in the best way for you (notebook, message on your phone, voice recording, visual design?) the progress you make and what you observe.
5. Get support
If you have a friend who seems to have good peace of mind – enlist their help. Ask what they do. And consider using a professional.Coaching is a great way to see what is happening inside you and identify things you want to build on or change. Request some coaching with me.
I hope you have enjoyed this article in my new Peace of Mind series. The next one will look at health and listening to your body.