Why we love to worry, and what to do about it
Janet, a woman in one of my mindfulness classes, was feeling nervous. She was afraid of speaking up in class. It was a fairly large group – 20 people – and she felt self-conscious about the prospect of so many eyes on her. But she also worried that by staying silent, she wasn’t taking part enough in the supportive community that was forming. And thinking these thoughts made her worry all the more.
I reassured her that there was no requirement to speak up. Everyone was free to talk or not, to the extent they felt comfortable. Just listening in was perfectly OK. Her presence alone was what mattered. But she couldn’t stop fretting about it.
I think we all have a bit of Janet inside us. We start with a little uneasiness about something, and before we realize it, it grows bigger and bigger. Even when we know it’s irrational, we feel pulled in by it.
What’s going on here?
It was a huge relief to me when I first learned of the phenomenon called negativity bias. In short, our brains are wired to focus more on our bad feelings than the good. It’s a survival instinct that comes from our caveman days. It was far riskier to miss noticing a potentially dangerous situation – like a predator – than a pleasant one – like a beautiful sunny day. So we’re biologically programmed to zero in on anything that seems “not quite right”.
In our modern day, we rarely encounter predators or other threats to life and limb. But our bodies still respond in the same way. We sense something’s wrong, and we zoom right in to hyper-focus on it. But it’s important to realize that we’re not to blame for it.
And thankfully, we don’t have to be victims of our biological natures. If you have a tendency to worry too much, there are ways to tame that beast.
Those of you who practice mindfulness will recognize the method of dealing with these thoughts in the moment they arise. Take a breath, acknowledge the thought, maybe label it, and let it go as best you can. Even a tiny sliver of space between you and the thought can help to take some of the edge off of it.
But I’d like to address a different point today. What do you do when the thoughts keep coming, no matter how much you practice this way? When it seems we make no headway over the long haul against this worry beast?
Because our brains give disproportionately high prominence to negative thoughts, it turns out we need a lot more positive ones to counterbalance them. Research suggests that we need five times more positive thoughts than negative ones in order to reach an emotional equilibrium back at neutral. Five times!
So for example, research found that married couples stay happy together when they have five times more loving interactions than say, snapping at each other.
This magic five-to-one ratio seems to hold true in other areas of life as well (here’s an example). It’s not so much about having huge, heart-soaring joyful moments. It’s about noting many simple, little pleasant ones – like stopping to appreciate a beautiful autumn day – that make a difference.
This makes sense to me. If you take a glass-is-half-empty view on life, having a few big happy occasions – even winning the lottery – doesn’t really turn things around. (And remember, that’s not your fault!) But by being mindful of the many small pleasurable moments in life, we’re gradually training our minds to take on the habit of seeing the positive. Just like with any other mindful change, it’s establishing a new habit that counts.
I, for one, definitely used to be more of a glass-is-half-empty person. To some extent, I think it was trained into me with my previous profession. I was a corporate project manager, and it was my job to worry about all the things that could go wrong so I could plan contingencies for them. Suffering from chronic depression didn’t help. Lots of negative habits had built up there.
So one way to reverse a habit like this is to practice appreciating the good. I admit that for the longest time, I resisted the idea of a “gratitude practice” – i.e. explicitly noting (even writing down) what you appreciate and are grateful for. It sounded too superficial and Pollyanna-ish. (Sure sounds like a glass-is-half-empty viewpoint, doesn’t it?)
But I’ve really come to see the value of doing it. What makes this practice work is to stop and feel deep in my bones why I appreciate something. Not just making happy lists, but reconnecting with a genuine felt sense of appreciation, pleasure, contentment, and the like. I think it’s when we lose touch with that side of us that we’re more susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope of worry. I’m training my mind to see that there’s actually another way to see things that’s not about things going wrong all the time.
So if you’re a worrier, please take heart. I hope you see that it’s just a habit, and habits can be changed. What we focus our attention on, grows — including the positive. Yes, it takes some concerted effort to overcome the weightiness of old habits. But the truth is, they can be overcome.