Some time ago, my youngest daughter came for a visit. She bent my ear about her worries. To pursue a nurse practitioner degree, she took out major student loans. She shared with me her apprehension — how would she pay them back? How would her loans impact her quality of life? Would she be able to afford to have children? The list went on. I listened, and I could hear her angst.
Earlier in the week, a teenage student told me about her worries. She experienced humiliation and embarrassment in middle school because of a health problem. Now in high school she found herself fearful that she would have the same experience once again. Sunday nights were pure hell.
Last week, I worried about how my daughter and her family would manage — they all had COVID-19. I was worried about what I would do if she and her husband got so sick they couldn’t take care of their young children.
Dr. Fritz Perls, a famous psychiatrist, observed that anxiety “was the gap between the present and the future.” When we worry, our mind is focused on the future, not on the present. Our attention, like a spotlight, is fixated on tomorrow — not today.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Future thinking can help you prepare a plan to navigate through and around potential roadblocks. Looking at a map before you embark on a road trip is a good idea. Putting together a disaster preparedness kit with water and food is wise planning — especially if you live in an active earthquake zone. It isn’t very useful to stick you head in the sand and hope that everything will be OK.
But worry is different. It creates a pit on your stomach that interferes with your wellbeing. It brings you out of the “now,” which is where we live and breathe. It brings you into the unborn future, which has no form or substance. And the future doesn’t even exist (yet). And in that non-existent space, we imagine forces and fixtures that will knock us down. Worry appears to us like “work” that we do that will tame the hungry tigers ahead.
It doesn’t help to tell yourself, “don’t worry, everything will be OK.” Giving yourself a firm talking-to (we call that “self-talk”) doesn’t give you much comfort. Reassurance isn’t useful, either.
So, what does help?
When I was 21, I went off to graduate school in San Francisco. I was terrified! I didn’t know anyone, had very little money to live on, and didn’t know the city at all. My parents told me, “don’t worry — you’ll be fine.” I was not comforted. But my good friend, Colin, listened to my fears, and remarked, “The first six months or so will be very hard. But after time, you will feel more confident and comfortable. Everything will become more familiar.” I felt a sense of immediate relief. Of course, he was right. It would be difficult at first but would get easier in time.
In the present, when faced with challenges, we draw upon our own resources and inner strengths. We ask for help from others. We locate previously unknown assets in real time. Unanticipated opportunities present themselves. We put one foot in front of the other and move forward. We get up when we’re knocked down. We plot a path, evaluate its probability of success, and make choices. If we are blown back by strong winds, we find another course. These human qualities— persistence, the use of trial and error (very inefficient but effective), and learning from our mistakes, moves us through tough times. This all happens in the present, in the here and now — not in the future.
It’s the combination of being prepared (I was also a Boy Scout), having realistic expectations (yes, it will be hard), and having confidence in our inner strengths and resources that helps us live through the challenging moments that lie ahead.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.
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