Monday, March 18, 2013

Worry Wart


When Dave died it was as though my brain got a reboot. I think of it as though my thinking brain went offline from the shock and my mind was led more by my emotional, intuitive brain. The chronic worrying I had before ceased. Vacillating over a decision stopped. Giving a shit what anyone thought about me ended. I was fearless and though I felt insane with grief, looking back now, I can see that I'd actually gained some sanity because my overly vigilant thinking brain was largely silenced.

But as the months rolled on, the old thinking brain has slowly returned, bit by bit. Lately, it's been back with a vengeance. I've been struggling to listen to my intuition over the roar of my thinking brain. I've been struggling to sleep over the sound of the loops of worry. All the bad news in the world seems to stick to me like glue and all of this is affecting my health (as of course, it would).

So what to do?
A book (saving me yet again) has helped a bit so far. It's called The Worry Solution*.
The title made me suspicious, but less so than another one called The Worry Cure. I have no patience for too-good-to-be true bullshit. But I took a chance with this one because it's brain science based.

It's helped me to learn that scientists believe that the brains of those who've lived through difficult childhoods are wired to be more vigilant. I can see that my brain is wired to worry. It's to protect me. Also, worrying for all of us was (and still can be) evolutionarily helpful. When we used to live in the open plains and get stalked by saber toothed tigers, we needed to be vigilant or we'd be lunch. But now, we have so little to actually worry about day to day and yet our brains are still worrying. It's as though they need something to worry about to protect us so they find something. Even if it's something that probably won't even happen. Also, when we worry about things we can do something about, it usually spurs problem-solving and becomes productive.

Knowing that this is what our brains do helps me feel less alone in my worrying.

The other thing that is starting to help me is imagery.
Imagery comes from the emotional part of our brain. It bypasses the verbal, thinking part of the brain that does all the worrying.
I've been practicing imagining a superhero me (cape and all) kicking the hell out of the worry when it begins. Then I imagine holding the worry out into space and letting it blow away. Last night I asked Dave to take it from me. I know he'd do that for me. On earth he'd do anything for me, so why not imagine him doing the same now?

And finally, before bed each night, I've gotten out my notebook, listed my worries, one by one, and then refuted them. Most of my worries are the kind I can do nothing about and will probably never come to pass. So I refute them. If my worry is "I'll be rejected" then I refute it (in writing) with reasons there isn't evidence to support that worry.

I also imagine all my worries stacked up over the years and think about the percentage of them that actually came to be and compare the two. The stack of worries reaches the moon and the events that really came to be can be counted on my hands.

The thing is, though, those of us who've had a spouse die, know what can really happen. And those of us who've suffered more losses on top of our spouse's death, are hyper aware of how bad things can get. It's possible our losses train our brain to be vigilant and the worrying is launched as a way to protect us (though it does no such thing most of the time).

What makes me most determined to kick my worrying habit is the fact that the worrying has the potential to suck the joy out of the current moment so that when something bad does happen, I don't have a lot of joy in the bank to sustain me through an inevitable rough patch.

My big worry lately (for some reason) is that I'll get sick and need help and my friends will have to take care of me or I'll just suffer alone in my condo. Yesterday I did feel some yuckiness coming on and took to bed, almost more as an excuse to lie in bed and watch movies than because I really felt seriously ill. As I lay there in my comfortable bed, listening to the rain outside and feeling the cool breeze from an open window slide over me, I realized that I had a lovely moment right there. Worrying about how sick I might actually be and how I would get help if I became really sick was not only ruining a peaceful time, but also probably making me sick.

I decided that instead of worrying, I'd consider myself lucky that I got to go to bed in the middle of the day and watch 80s movies with a napping cat tucked into my side.

Later, I took a bath, made my worry list, listened to the rain some more and slept through the night. Which is a miracle all its own.

I'm getting there.

*Disclaimer - There are some annoying bits of this book that I won't get into here, but there's just enough in it to make me think in different ways and that's what I wanted this post to be about.


  1. "If you pray don't worry" - "If you worry don't pray".

  2. Cassie.
    We’ve led different lives (except for the tragedy of losing our spouses), and yet our knee jerk reactions that followed are very similar and I’ve also since been intrigued by the working of our brains.
    “When Dave died it was as though my brain got a reboot. I think of it as though my thinking brain went offline from the shock and my mind was led more by my emotional, intuitive brain.” - Agreed.
    “But as the months rolled on, the old thinking brain has slowly returned.” - Unfortunately agree again.

    I’ve felt as though my mind went through some kind of paradigm shift. My whole perception of reality changed and my world was spun off it’s axis. It truly felt as though my brain had been rewired on many levels.
    - I no longer gave a shit about things like watching tv, (I still don’t), and I took to reading again.
    - I felt so much compassion for others going through any kind of suffering. (This has lessened as I started feeling overwhelmed by others grief on top of my own.)
    - I also care a heck of a lot less about money and earning more to get what I want. Instead I’ve realized that by being happy with what I have means I don’t need more money and can hopefully quit the job I no longer love for a lesser paying but more enjoyable one. (Still figuring this one out.)
    - But most significantly, I think my brain simply rewired itself so it didn’t go into shutdown mode by trying to process my Dave’s death. In the 1008 days that have passed since he died my brain has simply learned to work itself around the tangle mess of wires, and fried connections, that represent his death.

    There was a period of time that I read books on the brain and neuroplasticity. (The brain’s ability to relearn things.) Most of these were about overcoming physical handicaps and obstacles by rewiring the way we think & learn, but it made me realize that yes indeed my brain had changed and I wasn’t crazy. In fact I soaked it up and realized that I could use this information to impact myself positively if I wanted.
    A few of the books that I remember reading were ‘My Stroke of Insight’ by Jill Bolte Taylor. (Watch her TED talk online!) And ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge. I also practiced Mindfulness for a year through a free local Hospice program. (Look for books and videos on or by Jon Kabat-Zinn.)

    Anyway, I’m truly glad that you were able to enjoy your sick day instead of worrying about it.

    1. Val, I love Jill Bolte Taylor's book and TED talk. Epic.

  3. As you mentioned, our worries usually don't come to fruition, but that doesn't seem to stop the worrying. I like your exercise in writing and then refuting each worry, maybe over time that will help to show you how much the worrying is in vain.

    My brain not only feels rewired, it is overloaded and ready to short circuit. Just trying to keep everything running smoothly day to day is a major effort, one little thing can throw everything off. My joy bank is always overdrawn, just can't seem to keep any balance in there.