Breaking Free From My Addiction to Worrying

by Karen on March 12, 2010

Confession: I am a Worrier – with a capital W.

I think I might need a 12-step program.

“Hi. My name is Karen. I’m a Worrier.” “Hi, Karen.”

Because lately, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m not addicted to worry.

Over the years, there have been many unexpected crises that have impacted my life dramatically—my dad had a stroke when he was 53, my girls both were diagnosed with a bleeding disorder as babies, then Steve’s dad got cancer and died from AIDS he acquired from a blood transfusion. Crises continued to happen throughout my life. In recent years, my childhood best friend’s husband dropped dead of a heart attack, my sister-in-law died of breast cancer, another dear friend’s husband died of pancreatic cancer, etc.

Life events.

But somehow I wasn’t prepared for them.

Looking back, I realized I had been taught some bad theology early on by well meaning friends. I was told that once I gave my life to Christ then God had a “wonderful plan for my life.” I assumed (naively) that this meant my life would always be wonderful.

And in many ways it has been. But in many ways, it hasn’t seemed so wonderful when people I love have suffered and I have lost people very near and dear to my heart.

Add to that, I am a caregiver. By training I am a “helping professional” and by nature, I care for people who are hurting. That’s who I am and how I am gifted. And that’s a good thing.

But over time, I have sunk deeper and deeper into a “worry mindset” that permeates how I look at life and how I respond to situations. (And my worry mindset drives my family crazy!)

Now I know this is going to seem ridiculous to many people, but somehow worrying has become almost a comfort to me.

Let me explain.

Since I got that first phone call about my dad’s stroke when I was 22 years old, something gets triggered in me when I get bad news out of the blue. I’m happily going along with my life and suddenly, my life changes.

Somehow, that has developed into this crazy thought process that thinks…

…if I’m not thinking about anything and something bad is happening that I don’t know about,

…then, if I consciously think about it, maybe it won’t.

Hence, I worry.

I know that doesn’t make sense but that’s the way my little mind sometimes works.

The way this has evolved over the years is that my mind creates these horrific pictures of what might be happening. When I find out that nothing has happened, the little voice inside my head says, “See. What you imagined didn’t happen. Now you can relax.”

What does this really mean? It means I somehow think I can control what is happening. (Ha! This is so embarrassing to even write!)

Unfortunately, the downside of this is that there is this continual war between my mind and my body. And my body is acting out with symptoms of anxiety… like not being able to sleep, to a racing heart rate, to grinding my teeth at night, even to chest pains that lead me to the ER with a panic attack. (It happened the night of my birthday when I turned 53, the same age as my dad when he had his stroke. You don’t need a shrink to be able to analyze that one!)

My friend Mike Hyatt had a blog post that helped me think of this in a new way. He suggested that worry and imagination might be two sides of the same coin. That people who worry often have very active imaginations.

This idea began to take root and I started looking at what was happening in my head when I was worrying. And sure enough, I was seeing pictures of what might be happening that I didn’t know about…

  • My daughter bleeding out at the scene of a car accident.
  • My husband having a heart attack while he’s away on business.
  • My house being foreclosed.
  • My getting cancer and not living to see my grandchildren.

Not pretty pictures.

And the more I saw these kinds of pictures, the more they popped into my head. And the more anxious I got.

Until it felt like all I was doing was worrying. And yes, good things still happened and bad things still happened but there was no correlation between the intensity of my worrying and what was happening!

I was discussing this with my friend Patsy Clairmont and she told me when she struggled with anxiety, she used the three R’s: Refuse, Replace and Repeat.

Refuse to think about the picture that isn’t true. Just stop.

Immediately, Replace that picture with something positive (Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8)

Then Repeat. Over and over and over until your mind has shifted from the bad picture to a good one. (For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7)

Right after my conversation with Patsy, Lent was approaching. I was trying to decide what I could give up for Lent to remind me of Christ’s suffering. (Over the years, I have given up chocolate, wine, and romance novels—all things that I felt would help me to focus during the 40 days of Lent!)

Around this time I was talking with a friend and asking her to let me know when she arrived at her destination because I was a worrier.

She said, “Too bad you can’t give up worrying for Lent!”

I hung up and thought about it and decided, why not?

I would give up worrying for Lent. Whenever I found myself worrying (and creating these awful pictures in my mind) I would focus on Christ and create a new picture.

The problem was, I knew by definition, I would have situations occur that would normally cause me to worry where I would have to change my thinking.

And they did.

So, I’ll tell you in my next blog post the details of how it’s going but until then I’ll give you a hint: it hasn’t always been easy but it has been good.

Philippians 4: 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

kristin russell 03.12.10 at 12:01 pm

Oh Karen! I have always struggled with anxiety too, including panic attacks. Like you said, there are a lot of different factors that go in to finding a peaceful balance—for me this also included finding the right medication. (genetics, they can be a b****!)

Karen 03.12.10 at 12:04 pm

I’m so with you! Whatever works. I think medication is a wonderful thing. It’s not always the total answer but can certainly be a lifesaver while trying to find the answer!

Carol Buchanan 03.12.10 at 12:36 pm

In my own case, I worry in order to control. To paraphrase you, Karen, if I worry about it, maybe I can prevent it fron happening. In some senses, this might be considered proactive. One saves money in order to have the cost of something in the future. But in another sense, it’s the human desire to control that future event, real or imagined. Michael Hyatt is right about worry and imagination being obverse and reverse of one coin. Worry is also, however, my inability to let go and let God, as the cliche says. It’s a lack of faith that God is in charge and can bring good out of bad events.

So I work on letting go of worry and turning it over to God. Constantly.

Lindsey Nobles 03.12.10 at 12:36 pm

My name is Lindsey and I am a worrier.
You are not alone.

Someone once shared this or something similar and it helps my rational brain out of the worry syndrome.
The Logic of Statistics

Many people who have written or spoken about worry have told the statistics story. The earliest source that we could find of the story and most probable author was Thomas S. Kepler, a respected biblical scholar. He wrote about a woman who realized fears were ruining her life. She began to keep track of what was worrying her and she found:

40% of the things she worried about were about things that would never happen.

30% of the things she worried about were about things that had already happened, water under the bridge.

12% of the things she worried about were about others’ opinions and when she thought about it she realized that criticisms are often made by those that are jealous or insecure and therefore unjust criticism is a disguised compliment.

10% of the things she worried about were needless health worries, which made her health worse as she worried.

8% of the things she worried about were “legitimate,” since life has some real problems to meet.

If you consider the above as probable statistics, it would seem that only 8% of the things that you worry about are worth the worry. Next time you are worried about something, perform a check to see if the worry is in a category other then the 8% category and if it is, perhaps logic will help free you from the worry.

Karen 03.12.10 at 12:45 pm

You’d think after all these years of seeing God’s faithfulness I would be quicker to trust and slower to worry! Fortunately, “one day at a time” works for this, too!

Karen 03.12.10 at 12:48 pm

Linds, I think I read something like that in “The Noticer”, too. (I had to reread that section a couple of times! ;-) Good thoughts for when I need to get my mind in control of my emotions! (Which is usually all the time!)

Tina Shaw 03.12.10 at 12:54 pm

Sign me up for that support group.
I’m working on it – and continue to search for reminders in the world and support systems – such as your blog and scripture.
I am keeping a document on my desktop at work where I clip and paste these words of advice – and try to read it every day and as I go through my day – to keep me centered.

Hopefully we can change our patterns and know that God has it all under control.

I certainly know I don’t! :) (despite my efforts to the contrary)

Jenn Calling Home 03.12.10 at 1:01 pm

Hello, my name is Jenn, and I am a Worrier. You’re not alone. I am holding back the worry this morning even as I write. Trying to “let go” of teens heading out on their own has added a whole new dimension to the worry. I must not think of the “What Ifs.” It does no good anyway, and I chide myself on not trusting God more. An excellent book is “Loving God with All Your Mind” by Elizabeth George. Blessings!

Gail Hyatt 03.12.10 at 1:04 pm

Fantastic post. I’m so proud of you.

Rocco 03.12.10 at 1:13 pm

There is just one thing I now do…

Rest in the hands and heart of God, knowing that He loves me, and is more then capable of handling everything and everyone in my life.

Shannon Dittemore 03.12.10 at 1:35 pm

I suffered horribly after I was first married. Constantly worrying that my husband would die and leave me alone. See, I’d never cared that much about another person. And then, again, when my kids were born. They are still small, young children, and I’m learning to give my concerns to Christ. I do not want my life to be dictated to me by the fear in my gut. God is faithful and He is teaching me. Thank you for your insights. I do think the “fear addiction,” though irrational, is very real.

Loving Husband 03.12.10 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for your courage in posting this. My wife suffers from the exact thought process that you describe, so I am going to send her a link to this post. In her case, she has other complications. I’m not sure if you do, as well, because often these things manifest in many ways. For her, the worry/anxiety is also wrapped up with OCD that takes the form of scrupulosity, hypochondria, fear of germs, etc. For example, she constantly worries about her health, and she has thought she has had various types of cancer ever since I’ve known her.

One of the biggest challenges for her is the scrupulosity, because it does not allow her to give her worries to God. She cannot take peace in her relationship with God because she’s afraid she’s not completely given her life to Christ. There is always the thought in the back of her mind that she is holding back because she doesn’t want God to test her in some way by bringing on hardship or suffering. She has to throw on the end of the prayer “…but please don’t let anything bad happen”. So, the one thing that can give her peace she cannot take comfort in. If you or anyone else has any advice how to overcome that issue, it would be appreciated.

Rick Yuzzi 03.12.10 at 2:30 pm

I know some champion worriers, and it can be difficult to stop–probably as difficult as any addiction or compulsion that the mind can take hold of. Thanks for sharing your struggle. I’m sure your post and the suggestions in the comments will help some “worryholics” start to break free.

Kurt 03.12.10 at 9:10 pm

Worry stems from fear. F.E.A.R. = Future Events Appearing Real. They’re NOT real. The things we worry about are a mile wide, a mile high and a millimeter thick. Punch through with action and move past it. Action may be just getting busy cleaning the house.. anything to not think about the fear. Your 3 R’s are excellent… but action may work for you too… Does for me.

And you’re right, a 12 step program addresses fear complete with a 4th step personal inventory. Might be worth buying a Big Book! Step 1. I am powerless over worry and my life has become unmanageable. Works for anything, not just drugs, alcohol, gambling, over eating or sex. You could possibly find a woman who has experience working the steps and apply them to your circumstances.

Great Post!

Karen 03.15.10 at 9:42 am

Shannon, I *so* understand that fear of losing someone you love. Sometimes I wonder if because we have felt pain and loss in the past, and we really don’t want to feel that awful feeling ever again, somehow that sparks the worry. (I think I have a half a thought here I need to ponder…) Thanks for sharing your heart. God is good and faithful to meet us just where we are.

Karen 03.15.10 at 9:53 am

Rick, thanks for sharing about your wife. My heart aches for her. Having lived through some very hard situations for long periods of time, I understand that feeling of “waiting for the other shoe is going to drop”. it is a hard place because we live in a fallen and broken world and bad things do happen. One of the things that has helped me over the years has been to focus on learning more about God’s character. As I have learned more about who God is, it helps me to be able to see the bigger picture. I struggle a lot with wanting to understand life and why things are happening. As i learn more about Him, I can rest more in the assurance that He is in control of all things and I don’t always have to understand everything. That fees me up a lot! I will pray that God comforts her heart, her mind, and gives her a peace that passes all understanding.

Jenny 02.05.11 at 9:35 am

Thank you to everyone who has posted here esp Karen for starting the topic off.
I am opening up to finding ways of freeing myself from worrying. There are a couple of points I would like to offer – one is that we are all in this together – we are not isolated individual worriers we are a collective human family who are wanting to evolve into a place of trust in life rather than trying to control the future. Two, Rick I also was very moved by your concern for your wife and like her I have a gorgeously supportive partner who knows that I have a tendency to worry. Letting him hold me as I cry and allow my child self to feel how frightened I am has been very healing and sometimes we hold fears in our bodies and need to release them physically too. Lastly this is the one I am working on now – I believe all our worries stem from a feeling of being separate and on our own rather than connected to a loving higher power and if we can heal our relationship to that whatever that means to us – God, the divine, higher power etc then maybe we will be able to surrender to peace . Blessings to all of us in our hearts and minds. Jenny xxx

Michelle 06.06.11 at 2:54 am

Wow I’m glad I came across this post.Reading it makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who over worries.I too believe that I got it from my mom who is a admitted big worrier.It seems as though I just picked up on it growing up and flew with it.What makes it so very frustrating is that I know that much of my worrying is undue.It is my huge imagination that gets me going.I do admit my life has been wrought full of several issues.Who doesent have their own?Especially the past few years life for me has been the most tumultuous .The fear of worrying about the future and hoping that it isn’t going to turn out as hard as the present!My best way to cope which hasn’t helped me too much is asking myself if there is anything that I can do to fix what I am so worried about at present?If not then let it go!If so then get working on doing something about it…If any one could or would help me it would be greatly greatly appreciated. I’m lost.. Thanks…

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