Sunday, November 25, 2012


This morning I woke up early, as I often do, and started worrying. No doubt my brain chemistry is to blame, because I felt really terrible.  As usual, there was no reason to feel terrible.  Yes, I have plenty to worry about, as any person does.  But I know that worrying does no good, especially if what I'm worrying about is not under my control.  And certainly worrying in the middle of the night and losing sleep is not good for me at all.

Worrying is a form of caring, or at least that was what I was brought up to believe.  If you're not worried, you don't care.  But worrying is also a way to try to control the person you're worrying about.  Letting her or him know that the worrying you're doing is painful suggests that the person could stop the painful worrying by fixing whatever is causing the worrying: "If you go out in the snow storm tonight, I'll worry about you until you come home.  I'll be up all night and I have to go to work in the morning.  If you really cared about me, you wouldn't go out and make me worry that way."

So the person who worries shows she cares, but the person she worries about should show he cares by not doing whatever it is that makes her worry.  But if her pleas work and she never has to worry again, how will she show she cares?  It's a paradox, but don't worry.  She'll find something else to worry about soon enough.

Worrying happens in anticipation of a threat, because worrying always involves the future.  When we worry, we fear what we imagine could go wrong rather than what is going wrong now.  The worry is based on what has happened in the past and what could logically happen in the future given the present set of circumstances.  It's kind of like betting on what could go wrong; you win if you're right.  But you don't really want to win because that means that whatever could go wrong did go wrong.  (People who believe in Murphy's Law ["whatever can go wrong will go wrong"] are great worriers.)

Unlike a real and present danger, imagined dangers can escalate quickly, especially if the worrier has a good imagination.  What is the end result of a particular decision? No one knows, but worriers can always imagine.  I'm reminded of the series of commercials on TV that shows bizarre sequences of events resulting from using Cable TV instead of Dish.  The Rube-Goldberg-like scenarios are highly improbable but also highly imaginative and entertaining.  In a (mostly) comical way, they show the extent to which a single innocent-seeming decision can lead to disastrous consequences.

We all have the ability to imagine such consequences and to fear them.  We might even try to avoid them by making a different decision (such as not sticking with Cable TV).  Worrying, though, is something we do when we don't have the ability to head off consequences, mostly because the decision is another person's to make.  So we suffer pain from a life-or-death situation that hasn't happened yet.

Is that really different from the scenario we come up with during a brain chemistry attack?  Not really.  Ordinarily, the story we invent to explain the brain-generated bad feeling is one that is happening now.  With worrying, the story takes place in the future.  And then, once the soon-to-be-life-threatening scenario is imagined, it becomes like any other fictional rationale and takes on a life of its own.  The worrier tries to respond to what seems like a flight-or-fight situation.  But how would she respond?  Well, it depends on where and when the worrier is coming up with the dreaded scenarios.  If it's the middle of the night and the worrier's in bed, she's limited in her responses.

For instance, if I wake up and worry about whether or not the door is locked, I will eventually have to get up and find out.  Once I do that I feel better for a few minutes, but now I'm wide awake, and though I go back to bed, I don't go to sleep right away.  Instead, because the bad feeling is back, I find something else to worry about, something I might vow to fix in the morning.  Luckily, once morning comes I have a clearer perspective and find I don't have to do anything.  Or perhaps I find that I can't do anything.  But unless the bad feeling is gone completely, I still anticipate the bad event.  Sometimes I'll tell myself that I can't do anything, or that there's a solution I can apply in the future if it comes to that, and I do feel better.

The important thing is--as with all bad brain chemistry attacks--to get rid of the bad feeling as quickly as possible.  Now, I can hear protests from those people who are heavily invested in the value of worrying.  If I get rid of the feeling, doesn't that make me a bad person, an unfeeling wretch?  Well, that's a question that comes up whenever a person who is miserable because of brain chemistry tries to stop feeling bad.  If a person stops feeling bad, the logic goes, then he stops feeling.  That's utter nonsense, of course, because joy is every bit as legitimate a feeling as sadness or anxiety or anger.  Why is it not as valued, then?  A good question, and one I think needs to be answered.

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