God is teaching me not to worry by taking the stuff I get angsty about and making it happen.
Seriously. Last year before our trip to India I worried that because none of the participants had connected beforehand, all of us speaking at the youth conference would preach on the same topic. Matt prepared a message on Abraham and I prepared one about Elijah. Those were the two duplicate topics among the group.
I also stressed about us getting sick. We both did, me a little and Matt a lot a lot a lot.
I often worry about getting sick before big events. My sixteen-year-old stepson Miles gets something at least once a month, so there are plenty of opportunities for the rest of us. Minutes before we were scheduled to leave for the Eastern Christian Conference last November fourteen-year-old Nina began throwing up; two days later Matt caught it in time to run the Philly marathon (yes, I am married to the kind of man who runs 26 miles with the flu). Last January Nina (again) got sick just before our Christmas-present-ski-trip-including-personal-lessons-with-Uncle-Geoff-and-Aunt-Lisa in the Poconos. A few months ago I gutted my way through a huge presentation with a fever and a smile.
I worried about traveling to and from Indonesia alone last May and sure enough my flight there was cancelled and I had to fight with the lovely United folks to get booked on a new one. Then on my way home the Garuda Airlines people told me I no longer had a seat on my first flight of four and I would have to buy a new ticket out of the country so I could get to Jakarta and then Singapore and then Philadelphia.
My point in all this is not that my stepkids are petri dishes of germs (although they are) or that I need a new travel agent (although I do). My point is that I didn’t stop any of this from happening because I worried about it, and life didn’t end when it did occur. When my worst fears materialized, I survived. And I’ll survive next time. So I should stop worrying.
The problem is that I am an anxiety addict.
This sounds backwards. Other people use addictions to escape anxiety; they drink or gamble or look at porn to seek pleasure and avoid uncomfortable feelings. What could possibly be pleasant about worrying all the time?
Not much, but addictions aren’t primarily about pleasure. They’re about coping, and like other addicts, I use anxiety to cope. Those of us who struggle with obsessive worrying and chronic stress are often intelligent, competent people who are quite effective at taking action and fixing things. We may have found a measure of personal and professional success by constantly scanning the horizon for dangers, formulating preparedness plans, and strategizing for worst-case scenarios. In many ways, it works for us. So we believe, however irrationally, that if we can just think about that negative possibility or person from enough angles, we’ll figure out a way to fix it, too. Worrying feels productive and proactive, even if intellectually we know it’s not.
The problem is this approach only works for things we can control. For the many things we can’t, it (ironically) depletes vast amounts of energy and time that could be used for something more positive. In addition, biologists have found that repeated behavior actually carves new channels in the brain that become stronger with repeated use, which means the more we fret, the harder it becomes not to.
So this addiction, which caused relatively minor issues when I was a single freelancer with few demands, no longer works in the land of spouse and stepkids and custody hearings and the-church-is-right-next-door and various other things I can’t control and can’t escape. This summer I sat and sobbed on the steps of a hotel’s emergency exit, okay? I’ve hit bottom, and this is not working for me. So I’m going to fight for peace.
Like addicts dealing with demons of every kind the world over, this means taking it one
day hour at a time. It means deciding right now I am not going to get upset about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, or indulge in catastrophic thinking, or play what-if games in my head. Right now I’m going to let go of the 80% of my life I can’t control AND the resentment that that figure is so high. (Because what I control works out GREAT, and if I was in charge of MORE stuff including a few IDIOTS I know the world would be BETTER. I’m just saying.) Right now I’m going to choose to think differently and start chipping out some new brain channels and it’s going to be way hard and sometimes it will be more like a minute at a time.
Chronic worry has both hurt and helped me for three decades, so this won’t be quick. And it won’t be easy—I use the word “fight” on purpose. But anxiety that something might go wrong ultimately causes me more stress than simply living through it when it does, and I’m tired of spending my life prepped for fight or flight. Anxiety is a constant, abusive companion, one I’m finally ready to be free of. I’ll probably never conquer it completely, but I can try. And God—I get it, okay? Enough already.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Evil Erin