We like to go to war on things we think are wrong or bad; the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war against crime. We need to have a war on worry because worry is wrong and bad; it underlies, and may be in part the cause of, crime, drugs and, perhaps, even poverty. What is worry?

The word itself originates from the Old English ‘wyrgan’ which meant ‘to strangle.’ By the time Middle English was dominant, the word had morphed to ‘worien’ and meant ‘to grasp by the throat with the teeth and lacerate’ or ‘to kill or injure by biting and shaking’ which is how wolves would attack sheep. By the time of early Modern English, around the 16th century, the term had again morphed to ‘worry’ and meant ‘to harass, as by rough treatment or attack’ or ‘assault verbally’ and another hundred years later the meaning had shifted a bit and became ‘to bother, distress, or persecute’ and today the word worry is generally meant to mean ‘to cause to feel anxious or distressed’ or ‘to feel troubled or uneasy.’ It is quite a journey from ‘to strangle’ to ‘feel anxious or distressed.’ And yet, most people would agree that feeling anxious or distressed is not unlike being strangled. The question is, of course, who is doing the strangling?

More often than not, we worry, or feel anxious, or distressed, when we ourselves are strangling ourselves. We do this with our own internal dialogue, often called ‘self-talk.’ Self-talk is that subtle, on-going subconscious flow of words and imagery which is causal on our moods, and behaviors. You can imagine the anxiety you would feel if you worried about, i.e., were telling yourself, that tomorrow you might get fired from your job, or you might fail a test, or you might have to confront a person about a conflict. There are any number of ‘might’ scenarios we could worry about most of which don’t come to pass. And yet, when worrying, we are in distress, and that distress is not just psychological but biochemical as well. When we imagine worrisome scenarios, bodily chemistry, especially neurotransmitters in the brain, change. Psychotropic medications attempt to counter this chemical change back to normal, but not without side effects. The easiest and safest way to counter worry chemicals in the bloodstream is to imagine positive experience, positive outcomes, pleasant scenarios. Because the future is unknown for certain, and because we are endowed with creative imagination, it is well within our capacity to generate happy chemicals as well as worry chemicals.

Even scenarios that might paint out images in a way that would legitimately generate anxiety or worry, it need not generate excessive worry, anxiety or panic. Panic is anxiety about anxiety which is built up on chronic worry. In our culture, it is possible that the word worry has come to be associated, or maybe even equivalent to, the word ‘responsibility.’ That is, if we didn’t worry about something, we would not be a responsible person, because responsible people are concerned about others, situations, problems, conflicts….Worry becomes associated with concern, which is associated with responsibility. Who worries about things they are not concerned about?

One of our most fundamental concerns is often referred to as ‘survival.’ But, that word has several level of meanings: biological, psychological and social. And, the word itself is deeply related to the idea of ‘safety’ and ‘protection.’ Anxiety itself is not a problem or something to be avoided. It is a signal, a message, from the logic of the psyche warning of a threat or danger. The anxiety dissipates when that threat is diminished or neutralized, either by attending to it directly, or leaving which, in the biological animal realm, which is part of our makeup, is often running. This is the typical flight or fight response. Most all worry is about a perceived threat to the object of concern that is psychologically fabricated. That object of concern may be about material objects: car, home, money, relationships with others, work related tasks, etc. More often, it is about what those mean. It is the psychological construct, along with emotional attachments to what those words (and concepts) mean, that we are concerned about, not the direct object. We don’t care about the car, we care about what it means: transportation, flexibility, choice, response-ability….Money has a number of psychological meanings: control, power, autonomy, survival, choice, progress, evil, pain, pleasure….Car, home, job, relationship…,they all mean something to us and are objects of concern.

If we were unconcerned about, and emotionally detached from, our money, our car, our job, our relationships, there would be little logic to worry. But, we are concerned; very concerned. As a responsible person, therefore we worry.
But, what if to be responsible really means to be response-able. That is, able to respond, not to react automatically conditioned and patterned from decades of internalizing the norms; to have, like a player of chess, several options open as a response. The fact is, no matter what moves you have made in the past during perceived threats, real or imaginary, you made it, here, now. That suggests whatever threat comes, actual or fabricated, it will be responded to, either quickly or over a longer period, addressed and, as a result, diminished, neutralized, or vanished altogether.

And then, there is no need for a war on worry.

Author's Bio: 

Ken Fields is a nationally certified licensed mental health counselor. With over 25 years in the mental health field, he has worked as as an individual and family therapist throughout school districts and within communities, a crisis intervention counselor, a clinical supervisor and an administrator in a human service agency. He has taught classes in meditation, visualization, goal setting, self-image psychology, anger and stress management, negotiation, mediation and communication, crisis intervention, and parenting. Mr. Fields specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Family Systems Therapy and Communication Coaching. As a practicing counseling psychologist, Mr. Fields brings decades of specialized training and applied skills to his work. He now provides quality online counseling and can be found at http://www.openmindcounseling.com