Worry and Ruminating

Worry can be described as a distortion and misuse of our God-given imaginations. It is giving a small thing a big shadow (Swedish Proverb). Edward Hallowell says worry is vulnerability + powerlessness.  In our culture, and especially in the parental demographic,  excessive worry dominates thoughts and constricts relationships. Rumination is defined as persistent or repetitive worry. The word “rumination” actually comes from the action of a cow chewing its cud- chewing, swallowing, regurgitating, and chewing it again. That’s a grotesque picture which I find fitting in relation to worry.

Most worry is not a passive affair. Although one may not realize it, most people actively seek worry. It can be enlightening to assess how often worry actually saved you (or those you worry for) from something. Generally speaking, excessive worriers were often conscientious, inhibited, and highly sensitive children. There are some infant and in utero studies that suggest some people are more “hardwired” for worry than others. Though this might be true for you, this does not negate that fact that you must take responsibility for this propensity and learn healthy ways of managing this toxic thought process.

Some typical beliefs and assumptions that can fuel worry include:

  • Intolerance for uncertainty (Need to control and/or have certainty)
  • Intolerance for discomfort
  • An inflated sense of responsibility an culpability
  • A distorted assessment of potential risks
  • Perfectionism
  • Worry is overvalued (Examples: “Worrying prevents bad things from happening.” Or, “Worrying shows my children I care.” “Worrying allows me to focus on worst case scenarios so I won’t be surprised by life.” And even: “I can anticipate and avoid discomfort by worrying.”)
  • Worrying about worry (Example: “I’m going to make myself sick.”)

There are many ways to process and deal with worry. It all takes practice and processing to understand what leads to your specific worrying tendencies and how to change them. Some worrying is a part of other mental illnesses but have varying, and specific, characteristics (like with Depression, OCD, or Panic Disorder, to name a few).

A properly trained therapist can help you learn healthy ways of reframing your thoughts, practicing mindfulness, understanding cognitive distortions and themes in worrying, and identifying irrational thoughts. Understanding one’s view of God has major impacts on how one worries as well. If God is not believed to be sovereign in all things (i.e. have complete control), or if God is not believed to be good, these assumptions/ beliefs (among others) will impact our thoughts and thus our behaviors in our relationships with family, friends, and God himself.

Worry is a chain that binds and constricts, preventing us from living truly free lives, and allowing others to live free lives. It can give a temporary sense of (false) power and control over various situations, but in the end leaves us feeling exhausted, discouraged, and burned out on life.

How Does That Make You Feel?

IMG_20130725_015819   This question was epitomized by TV therapist Dr. Phil. Unfortunately it has been broadly, and scoffingly, ascribed to all counselors as their “go to” question. There is so much more to therapy than getting a person to share their feelings. Yet, like all stereotypes, there are grains of truth embedded. Why do counselors spend time at all with clients unraveling the tangle of their emotions? Our culture defines male masculinity as strong, stoic, and emotionless. Assertive females who show little emotion are viewed as sexy and mysterious, aloof and powerful. Openly expressing and sharing emotions is culturally seen as embarrassing, immature, and weak. But if a friend came to you in grief because they lost a loved one, a job, or even a cat, would you treat them disdainfully? My hope is that would not happen; but my guess is there might be some mild discomfort. Most people are uncomfortable with deep expressions of emotions (like grief, despair, depression, etc.) because they are not comfortable with their own pain.

As human beings, made in the image of God, we have feelings- and LOTS of them! They are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that can be good or bad. They are signals that things are going well, or flags that they are not. Our culture teaches us to quiet the sirens, numb the feelings, avoid the pain. In other cultures there are dances and songs to wail out when one is experiencing pain. Our culture has no such practices. When we stuff down and ignore we grow more and more disconnected to our authentic selves and our relationships. Not living out of an authentic self, journeying toward greater emotional disconnectedness, many things are affected.

  1. Relational intimacy is sacrificed. That goes for platonic and romantic relationships. It affects how close you are willing to get to others. If you avoid hard emotions within yourself, then you are most assuredly avoiding those same emotions in others. Relational connectedness suffers.
  2. Physical and/or behavioral concerns grow. When emotions are stuffed oftentimes anxiety develops, depression can flourish, anger/rage increases, to name a few. Body aches can increase, especially things like migraines, shoulder pain, neck pain, and digestive issues.
  3. Your life is lived in the grey rather than the brilliant colors offered. When we avoid the negative, it doesn’t mean the positive reigns. It means they both are dulled. Author and pastor Henri Nouwen says suffering and joy are two sides of the same coin. To numb one consequently numbs the other.

Avoided, unnamed, and buried emotions can leave us stuck and imprisoned. It can be difficult to name the emotion if you’ve lived this way for a long time. Happy or sad are the two descriptors most cited. To begin living more fully, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Give yourself space and quiet. We live in such a busy time, and that makes it easier to avoid and numb out feelings. Find some space to reflect and assess where you’re at.
  2. Think through events that have occurred throughout your day or week. Do you feel anything in your body? If so, where? What are the thoughts that accompany those experiences? What does it feel like? Looking through a list of adjectives can be very helpful. Or using a search engine to find a “Feelings Wheel” to help narrow things down. Sometimes we need someone else to use the language for us before we can use it ourselves.
  3. Find a trusted person to discuss some of your discovered feelings, and own it. They’re yours. They aren’t good or bad. It will help you understand them better.
  4. Choose to enter into the difficult, the painful, the confusing. Choose again. And again. They will become less scary, and you will find greater freedom and authenticity in your life.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to start asking ourselves: “How does that make you feel?”