It hit me as I walked to the bank the other day to deposit the rent check. The kind of worry that you remember exactly where you were when it struck you.
I was in the middle of the sidewalk, the sun was hitting my face just so that there was a large discrepancy between where the light hit my left eye, and the other remained in shadow. The sidewalk was curved, and I was looking down at my booted feet.
I’d just passed a woman at six feet of distance. I’d smiled and she did not return the kindness. She was touching the crosswalk button with her full, bare palm.
Why aren’t people more careful? What if she has the virus? I could have the virus. I hope my mom doesn’t get it. She’s a smoker—vulnerable. What if she dies? I’d have about 17 days to get up to Washington state to see her. I wouldn’t be able to hug her again. Did I remember and savor our last hug?
I looked up and saw another person approaching, not modifying their path to accommodate the appropriate amount of space for physical distancing. I walked in the gutter of the almost empty downtown Boulder street normally bustling with traffic.
Near the stoplight, I stopped myself.
“The Buddhist rule about worrying: Don’t.” I remembered the title of the Elephant article I share out all the time. It’s one of my favorites; one of the most impactful stories from my time as a reader.
And I heard my mind shout back at me, in panic: But if I don’t worry, how will I stay informed? How will I know what to do, or how to protect myself and others?
I’ve always identified as a worrier. But until that moment, I never fully comprehended how often I let it take over, or how much of my life I allow it to run.
Worry was driving my news consumption.
Worry was replacing the reality of a beautiful moment in the Colorado sun. Worry was replacing empty streets stretched before the very beginning of the Eastern side of the Rocky mountains with some sad day in the future where my mom might suffocate to death alone.
Worry was turning my neighborly smile into judgment and disdain.
I listened to my inner self as she answered the small but loud, panicked person inside of me.
Worry is the vulgar uncle of concern.
Worry is a stressful driver of a desire for information, but it is not the information itself.
Worry isn’t a substitute for action.
Worry doesn’t live in the past or the present. It is a sorcerer that sends dark images from a not yet existent future.
Worry is mindless and reactive.
Now, my fellow worrywarts will know that worry is not something that one can cure in two weeks or three or four of a quarantine. Worrying is a chronic plague treated only with mindfulness.
So, here’s what we can do to combat worry each time it rears its ugly head:
1. Ask yourself if your worry requires immediate attention (note that I did not say action).
I addressed all the concerns that had raced through my brain in a minute: Was my mom sick right now? Was I? Were my finances in order right in that very moment? And so on.
Recognize what comes up. Hardly anything that was causing my brain to spin and heart to race was rooted in a present reality.
2. Ask yourself if you can do anything about what you’re worrying over.
Stick to just yes or no for now, as you go down the list of your worries.
Could I do anything to control my mom’s getting sick or staying well? No. Could I do anything to help myself stay well? Yes. There was a pretty clear distinction between what I could and could not do anything about, which was immediately comforting.
For the answers that needed immediate tending to, a list of actions to take became pretty much immediately obvious. In this case, I usually note down my stressors and then prioritize them. Then, for each thing that really needs to get done to release some anxiety, I make a list of small actions to tick off. Small victories are everything.
3. Ask yourself, “If there is nothing that I can do, why worry?”
This is a two-step process. First, ask that question, then look at what’s actually in front of you now. I phrase it like this:
I can’t control whether my mom stays well. So why worry about the worst-case scenario when I have the best-case scenario in this very moment?
I can’t control that my boyfriend is working and living thousands of miles away in Hawaii and that it’s not the right time for me to uproot my life and move there. So why worry about it, when I can bond with him in other creative ways right now?
4. Ask yourself what you can do if you can’t do anything about the specific scenario.
I can talk to my mom on the phone as often as possible, share what information I know with her, and bond. I can do FaceTime and pay close attention to that time, her look, how she sounds—I can take this opportunity to be more present than usual with her.
I can talk to my boyfriend about the revelation that I don’t want to be long-distance anymore, and start discussing when we feel would be a good time (no matter the circumstances) to make life together in the same house happen.
This is a process that I catch myself in more and more these days. It is a process that re-presents me in the actual moment, and it’s amazing what a comfort the actual moment can be. At times.
Admittedly, sometimes the moment requires the pulling up of some serious big girl panties—like finding the best solution to a tough financial situation. In those times, I remind myself that my best effort has to be something that I recognize as enough; less than perfect has to be enough. I simply am not a magician that can instantaneously manifest anything I need.
Admittedly, this process is not always comfortable. It sometimes means looking at the fact that a lot of the worries in my mind are things that I can do something about, and things that do require action. But that’s just the point:
We need not ever worry. We need to act. We need to be informed. We need to practice (be it caution, kindness, empathy, or generosity). We need to be in the now, and worry never is.
What’s your trick to dealing with worry and anxiety in these times? Let’s make a list of coping mechanisms together in the comments!