The Worry Habit

The Worry Habit

The dictionary defines ‘Worry’ as “to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts”. The question that arises is why would one want to torment oneself when worry can also cause physical ailments? Why would one want to think of disturbing thoughts?

Worry is one emotion caused by thinking of something that a person anticipates to turn out not as he expects it to. A student would worry about how he would do in an exam. Once the exam is done with, he worries about the outcome. If the student happens to be at the turning point in his academic level, he would worry about whether he would get admitted to a college of his choice. A college kid would worry about his employment prospects. An employee in the midst of layoffs worries about his future and an employee who is settled in work worries about his future. A man with nothing is worried as much as a man with plenty. And worry seems to have a processional effect. The assurance “Don’t worry” seldom works because in order not to think of something, we need to think of it first, which only exacerbates the emotion. “Don’t worry unnecessarily” is worse advice because there is nothing like ‘necessary’ worry. All worry is unnecessary.

What is the cause of worry? Is it hereditary? I think it’s more a result of modelling. Our parents may have been worriers and we look at our parents and model their worry habit. These patterns are formed in our sub-conscious mind and over the years, with continuous ‘practice’, we get ‘better’ at worrying. And this spreads. When we get married, if our spouses model us, they would turn worriers too and then, our children.

Charles Duhigg, in his book ‘The Power of Habit’ says, ‘cravings are what drive habits.’ The habit loop consists of a cue and a reward, connected by a routine. For example, the cue may be a ringtone on your mobile phone announcing the arrival of a mail. You anticipate a distraction (the reward) and then the go through the routine of opening the mail. Pretty soon, the craving for a distraction will cause you to look at your mobile phone every time the mobile phone beeps and you will end up opening the mail.

So, this begs the question, what could possibly be a ‘reward’ for the worry habit? Let’s look at the worry habit loop. The cue is an event, let’s say, an exam. What is the reward? It is clearly the relief obtained from a favorable result. The favorable result itself is not the reward but the relief one would experience in the event of a favorable result is the reward. And the routine is worry. Let me give you another example. My daughter steps out for shopping with her friends (cue) and it is now well past the time she said she would return home. I begin to worry (routine) and call her to ascertain her coordinates. She tells me she is at the door. The bell rings and she walks in. I am relieved (reward). Her walking in itself is not the reward. My relief is.

So how do you change this habit? Duhigg goes on to say that to change a habit, you need to keep the old cue and the old reward but insert a new routine. So, instead of the routine of worrying, I would substitute that with conversation with my wife on how responsible our children are. Or substitute worry with faith. The reward still is relief. But the replacement habits, Duhigg warns, become durable new behaviors only when they are accompanied by the belief that change is possible. Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

Thomas Carlyle wrote “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” If you can solve your problem, then there is no need of worrying. If you cannot solve it, there is no use of worrying. There’s no point worrying about the past as you can do nothing about it now. There is no point in worrying about the future as you cannot control it. The present is all you have to influence.

Life is too short to be spent worrying. Mark Twain expressed it best when he said “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” 

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