The science of worrying

(Posted by Mark)

There’ll always be something on your mind you’ll never quite find
Won’t you ever make your mind up?

I find it possible to worry about almost anything at any given moment, despite the fact that I lead what is, in comparison to a lot of the world’s population, a rather worriless and pleasant life. So why worry? Although not quite at the “did I leave the gas on?” level of ill-remembered fretting, many of the things I worry about are embarrassingly trivial. It’s quite similar to sitting around thinking about whether you could ever train cats to play football when someone asks, “What are you thinking?” to which you have to lie “Er, reconstruction in Iraq”, otherwise you sound pathetically shallow (and not a little crazy). With some of the topics for my worrying, such shallowness abounds.

This is the most understandable of worries: Did I do X? Have I called Y? Will I get to my location on time? Have I taken the right turning? Will they remember who I am? Did he leave the tickets/keys where he said he would? What’s my name?

Speed-fretting such as this is fairly low grade and can be dispensed with quite quickly. If you are worrying about being lost, then stop being English for a second and just ask a bypasser for directions. You can check your mobile phone to see whether you called someone or whether you are running late. And if you get to your destination and things aren’t entirely perfect, there will probably be either a good explanation or a way of fixing things so it all turns out well. That’s the optimist in me talking. For advanced worriers, the consequence tree has many branches and each different aspect of an outcome will produce another mini-worry chain.

No, the real problem with speed-fretting is when you are worrying about so many different things at the same time that you fall into a kind of shutdown mode. Combining multiple worries can send you into a catatonic state whereby you are incapable of any form of remedial action to resolve your panic. Here’s an example worry chain: Lack of money + delayed train + missed call + not sure of directions + meeting for the first time = a very nervy worrier who is about to go into a state of mental breakdown. And there’s no real solution to this one, other than to stop. You could try the ‘go to your happy place’ trick, but I’m not sure that works and it sounds a bit hippie-ish for my liking.

Work is another area where worrying takes hold. This is usually because you have too much to do and too little time to achieve it. Here again the shutdown mode is evident, because while you are trying frantically to finish off as much as you can, you’re also thinking about what’s next, what can be shelved, what can be delayed and what you can make excuses for. Your mind is not focused on the one thing you are supposed to be doing at that time, and so you make a botched job of it, meaning that the remedy work which will eventually come back to you will add to your overall burden. Don’t you just love vicious circles? For this kind of worrying, there are really only two cures: cigarettes and coffee. If you don’t smoke, take it up. If you don’t like coffee, learn. You’ll need all the nicotine and caffeine you can get to work your way through nightmare days.

You shouldn’t, you know, but it’s terribly easy to. It ought not to make a difference, but it really does. Yes, it’s the old worry: what people think. I am 100% positive that I have inherited this trait from my mother, who has an incredibly bad case of “what will the neighbours think” syndrome. WWTNT syndrome is particularly severe in the particular leafy corner of tube zone 4 where our family house is located, with net curtains going all aflutter when strange cars drive down the road and curiously coincidental bumping-into-by-accident meetings whenever I was bringing someone home back in the days I still lived there.

I went to pieces when I should have shouted and screamed instead
So sorry, I said

To be more accurate, I don’t worry about what people think about me in isolation; I manage to feel this while simultaneous thinking that if they have a problem, they can go to hell. This combination of low self-confidence and misplaced belligerence is hardly a sign of good mental health and yet I know that other people get this as well. First impressions are always a worrying time because although everyone knows that the best way to make a good impression on someone is to be yourself and be relaxed, the situation in which you are meeting someone for the first time is probably going to be a bit stressful, to say the least. Also, the most annoying way of ensuring that you have worried yourself into a gibbering frenzy is to keep thinking about it; sod’s law, really.

A good example of worry paralysis is when meeting up with people you have never met; for example, taking a random situation from nowhere in particular, at blogmeets. Turning up at the right place and at the right time is a good starting point. And then you just sit there, trying desperately to remember people’s faces from the photos you quickly checked out the day before when you realised that you were just about to go off and meet a whole bunch of people about whom you know incredible amounts of information yet whose faces are completely unknown. Occasionally, you might glance over at another table and think “well, they look like they might be bloggers” but then quickly dismiss it because anybody could be a blogger. You recall that one of the people you are due to meet wears glasses. Well done, that narrows it down to half the UK population.

Then you realise that you have no idea what one or two of the prospective attendees are called; oh, you know their site name, but their real name? Nope, no idea. So you either stay seated, firmly in the grip of worry paralysis, or you start to wander around the place in the vague hope that you might recognise someone or that someone might recognise you – this is known as worrywalking: you’re not actually going to anywhere definite, but the act of moving is a displacement activity while your mind roams through myriad possibilities.

If you are eventually lucky enough to find or be found (thanks Hg), then you have to worry about the fact that people might be talking technical things (uh-oh) or just that they’re all a lot funnier and have better social lives than you. At the beginning, you stay very quiet, trying to work out what the hell terms like RSS, A-list and MT mean so that you don’t make a fool of yourself. Eventually, the worry will pass and you will slip seamlessly into conversation, so for anyone worrying right now: fear not, there is hope. (Top tip: keep hammering on about being Z-list so no-one realises that you actually have no idea what you’re doing; it’s worked for me so far. Fingers crossed.)

Some of your worries will have foundation. There is a chance that you might miss the beginning of a film, your partner could be having an affair, your friends may be talking about you behind your back – however likely or not, these are all within the realms of possibility. Some other worries, however, will be entirely groundless and quite fantastic. This is generally the time when you should stop worrying about alien invasion and begin considering the distinct possibility that you are clinically insane.

While sitting on the steps outside my work building a while ago, enjoying an elevenses cigarette, I looked up at the building site diagonally across from where I was sat. The construction work was still in an early phase and the building’s skeleton was the only completed part. Looking up at the girders and beams criss-crossing up and up, I wondered to myself whether a sniper sat on one of the beams would be able to shoot me from that distance. I then wondered whether, if a sniper starting shooting into the crowd, I would be able to find adequate cover from the fusillade of bullets which would be raining down upon the commuters and workers crossing the road. While I was trying to work this out, I realised that I probably would be able to find cover, but not in time, and this started to worry me.

I should point out that this is paranoia of the highest level and I have (a) laughed it off since then, and (b) seriously considered getting professional help. However the momentary worry I had, before realising that this was entirely the fault of an overactive imagination, a slightly warped approach to urban planning and probably a bit too much coffee, was definitely real. It is annoying, though, that I had not only to deal with some of my real worries, but that I was also inventing new and implausible ones to further send myself into a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, I managed to stop myself worrying about my worrying, because that’s just taking it a bit too far.

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