“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength,” says Corrie ten Boom, thus underlining a truth all Christians burdened by worry should remember.
The cost of living, the fact that they cannot afford a house, the future of the nation, climate change, poor health, growing old, pensions, crime, and terrorism—these are just a few of the concerns Australians wrestle with, according to a national study by “Australia Talks”.
It goes without saying that these factors do not only concern Australians, and the list of causes of sleepless nights for the modern human is not small, by any means. Even if the world we live in and our daily life offers us sufficient reasons to worry, the emotional and physical cost we owe to chronic worrying is always too high to pay.
Defining worrying as a “chain of thoughts and images that negatively impact us, being relatively incontrollable,” the authors of a British study observed that chronic worrying is a key-component of mental disorders, like depression or anxiety. Furthermore, after examining 19 other studies on the subject, British researchers observed that worrying seems to be one of the factors that negatively influences one’s health in the long run, favouring the conditions for cardiovascular disease and a series of other chronic disorders. Excess worrying can even lead to a higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.
What lies beneath our emotions?
Worrying is a way to avoid certain negative feelings, by replacing them with others of the same register (for instance, instead of anxiety, we plunge into sadness or shame), which we regard as easier to bear, psychologist Ellen Hendriksen says. Another slightly different interpretation is brought by a study published in Behaviour Therapy, which suggests that people who worry are hypersensitive to negative emotions. By this mechanism, they place themselves in a state of constant negativity, which is not at all comfortable, but which they prefer to the noise of intense negative emotions.
No one is immune to fear, psychiatrist and therapist Helgi Jónsson says. He observes that this is a normal reaction to our thoughts and experiences. Emotions are produced when the brain foresees the need for extra body energy in a certain circumstance and answers by releasing hormones (which we call stress hormones) in the blood. These generate a certain bodily sensation to which we ascribe a name: fear, joy, disgust, and so on.
During a regular day we find ourselves in familiar situations, which we do not regard as uncertain, and therefore our brains do not require extra energy, and we remain in a neutral emotional state. This need for energy only occurs if our thoughts require it, through the interpretation we give to the present or the future, Jónsson says. In turn, these interpretations and convictions are connected to our past experiences and the environment we grew up in.
To sum up, we should not be afraid of our emotions or trivialize them, but instead identify the thoughts that generate them, analyse them, and try to discover which of them are irrational or destructive. Sometimes, our thought patterns can be so rigid and deeply ingrained in us that we might need professional help.
What can you do to combat your worry?
When worries turn into a giant snowball that risks crushing us, therapy can come in handy. The most efficient therapy programs have proven to be those that involve an acknowledgement of the emotions and thoughts we are wrestling with, changing our thinking style, and detaching ourselves from the emotional response to worrying, like cognitive behavioural therapy, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Surrey.
Sometimes change can be managed without professional help and consists of going through several more or less complicated stages. For instance, it is very important to distinguish between productive and unproductive worry, says Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York. Productive worrying gets us to act in order to solve a problem that might occur if we delay the action (for instance, to make a timely reservation for a flight). Unproductive worrying is just a slalom through scenarios filled with ifs and hows that we cannot control or solve.
Worrying is a mechanism we use in our attempt to avoid discomfort.
In general, people who worry have the tendency to avoid new, unknown situations. A possible remedy would be precisely that of intentional involvement in activities that bring a certain degree of discomfort. Worrying is a mechanism we use in our attempt to avoid discomfort. This is why, the more we try to do new things we are not comfortable with, the less we will rely on worrying as a strategy to remain in our comfort zone, Leahy says.
The most effective strategies to combat worrying require the acceptance of our inability to control everything that is happening to us, psychologist Sheila Dowd Rush says. Good sleep is a pretty effective medicine against our concerns. To generate the relaxation that precedes a restful sleep, Dowd recommends writing down the things that concern us, as well as the next step we plan on taking to solve them. Additionally, the choice of a credible news source, and limiting access to news that has a negative impact on us, as well as not using digital devices at least one hour before bed time, are important.
Gratitude can be a strong weapon against anxiety (that has concern as a cognitive element and stress as a physiological reaction). A recent study conducted by German researchers showed that gratitude has the potential to reduce repetitive negative thinking. Gratitude might help diminish anxiety in teenagers, as researcher Danielle Cripps has shown, who studied the effect that keeping a gratitude journal has on pupils.
Last but not least, beyond our efforts, we deeply need an Almighty Help, the Word that became flesh and came into our world to heal, comfort and offer a hopeful future, psychiatrist Helgi Jónsson says. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the book The Purpose Driven Life, says that the antidote against worrying thoughts is meditating on God’s Word: the more we focus on the Word, the less we will worry about the things that might go wrong.
Worry and faith don’t go well together
When we worry, we break a very clear divine commandment, says pastor and Professor John MacArthur. The pastor reminds us that three times Jesus forbade us to worry in the Sermon on the Mount. The One who takes care of the lilies in the fields and feeds the birds of the sky watches over all of our problems. Allowing yourself to be consumed by worries regarding basic needs means behaving like an unfaithful person, Jesus says. At the same time, today’s problems are the only ones we have to deal with. His help will come at the right time: “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34, The Message version).
Worrying is not a small thing. It undermines the foundation of faith, says MacArthur, explaining why he believes this is a sin. When we worry, we actually tell God He is not worthy of our trust. What kind of God can forgive us, save us, offer us the gift of eternal life, but not fulfil our daily needs? Those who live with worry do not truly believe what Scripture says, because in it they should have discovered who God is and how He cared for His children in the past, the pastor says.
The burden of worry and living in the present
The last argument used by Pastor MacArthur holds that worrying robs us of today’s joy, decreases our efficiency, and even paralyzes us because it exiles us to a tomorrow that might bring difficulties and troubles we do not yet have the resources for. God never promised power for problems that are not here yet (and perhaps will never even come), but He promised that “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23). God gives us strength, day by day, and to worry about the future means burdening ourselves with a pain we haven’t yet received the necessary grace to carry, concludes MacArthur, inviting his readers to fully trust Jesus, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
More than a century ago, Canadian doctor and Professor William Osler delivered a speech to Yale students on the healthy principle of living in the present moment. During his journey on board a transatlantic voyage, Osler witnessed the closing of the airtight compartments of the vessel, an exercise that helped the ship remain afloat under any circumstances. Even if the ship had hit an iceberg, the captain explained, the water would only go to the damaged compartment. Each day of our life should be like an airtight compartment, with heavy iron doors closing on the past and future, that is, the day that died and the one that is yet to be born. It is only by doing so that we can live safely, said Osler, because “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”
The need to restrict uncertainty, the wish to have control over things that are important to us and to see beyond the future instead of limiting ourselves to the information given by the present, are deeply rooted in us. However, what God has promised is a lamp for our feet, and not a crystal ball in which we can read our future, writer Max Lucado says. Moreover, He offers Himself to us, today, tomorrow, and “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.