“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
As I went to bed the other night, I found myself worried.
What is worry, really? I looked up the definition and here are a couple I found: “give way to anxiety or unease; allow one’s mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles.” Or one I particularly like: “a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.”
What I like about that one is that the problems could be actual, or potential. We often worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and in truth, might never happen. I think worry is a mental spinning about circumstances that usually are out of our control.
I can’t imagine any of you have ever had that experience.
So, there I was, trying to settle in and relax enough to fall asleep, and instead, I was starting to spiral into worry. My thoughts were racing, yes, about something that hadn’t happened and might never happen. I felt anxious; my heart was pounding, mind spinning. How? Why? How do I fix? What can I do?
I know we have all been there, spinning our mental gears, body tense, the feeling of anxiety building, unable to get comfortable, tossing and turning. We might do that for minutes or for hours, and eventually surrender into a restless sleep, or maybe just give up on the idea of sleep entirely and get up to read, or surf the internet, or write in our journal, or binge watch that show on Netflix we’re into.
But this night, when I was just starting down that spiral of worry, something amazing happened. In an unexpected moment of choice, I stopped. I stopped and took a breath. I became conscious of my body, of the tightness in my chest and the knot in my stomach, my racing heart. And then I had a little talk with myself. I said to myself something like, “These things tend to work out. There is no use worrying about this right now and interrupting your rest. Let’s just shut that spinning brain off for a bit and go to sleep.”
And here’s the truly unexpected and amazing thing – my mind actually listened to this reasoning – this wiser part of me that told it to stop, and it stopped. In an instant. My spinning thoughts stopped and there I was again. Easy breath, relaxed body. I turned over, and went to sleep.
This seemed nothing short of miraculous.
I can remember, as a child, late at night, climbing into my mom’s bed, listing all of the things I was worried about. I’m sure she was tired. It was the end of her long day of parenting, and her youngest was not staying in bed. I am sure she was ready to be done for the night. I am sure she could have offered me some more perspective and wisdom in the daytime, when she wasn’t spent and stressed, perhaps even caught in worry herself. I am sure she didn’t mean to increase my anxiety, she simply wanted me to go back to bed and to be done for the day. I face that frequently at the end of the bedtime routine with my own kids when they are restless, and I offer them some curt response to their antics – a swift “go back to bed.”
What she did say, I can recall clear as day, and let me tell you, it did not help.
“Don’t be a worrywart.”
Great, now I had something else to worry about – not being a worrywart. That sounded like something terrible to be. I definitely don’t want to be that, but HOW? The thought of it even now makes me worried. I’ve been worried about that since I was 6.
So, the other night, when I actually stopped my worried mind from spinning, yes, that did feel miraculous.
Despite my years of yoga and meditation, those late-night worry sessions can still get me from time to time. But this time, I didn’t get caught. I am not entirely certain why, because frankly, lately, my meditation and yoga practice have been a little meager. To be perfectly honest, I have been struggling to get myself to my yoga mat or to get my butt on my meditation cushion daily. Blame the snow, days off from school and my kids being around so much, blame work, blame feeling a little lazy lately, whatever it is, my discipline has not been so strong in the past weeks.
But here’s what I suspect – something happens over years of practice, without our realizing it, and without our planning it.
Practice is cumulative, and it starts to show up off of our mat. It shows up in our conversations, our conflicts, with how we talk to others, and perhaps most importantly, how we talk to ourselves.
For me, in that moment of worry, it showed up in not believing my thoughts about how doomed everything was. It showed up in perspective. It showed up in recognizing that I’ve been here before, in the worry spiral, thousands of times, since I was 6 or maybe younger, and that worry didn’t actually create any solutions. That worry was not helpful. Worry instead just created anxiety.
If we are dedicated to a meditation practice, over time – over months or years – we spend countless hours noticing what’s happening in our internal experience. Sometimes that is noticing your body and how it feels, sometimes it is noticing your breath, or sounds. Sometimes you stop noticing anything and get lost in thoughts. But inevitably, if you keep practicing, you catch the thinking – the list making, the worry, the fantasy, the trying to figure things out. The idea is that you catch yourself thinking and you simply notice it without having to do anything about it. You don’t have to believe your thoughts, you don’t have to let your thoughts decide what you do, you just notice them. And then you come back to your breath or your body, to sensations, to what is actually happening right now.
The other piece that is intrinsically a part of mindfulness, that grows and develops over time, is kindness. There’s the important part of mindfulness that is noticing, and there is an equally important part of mindfulness that is about holding what you are noticing with kindness and without judgement. Having compassion for that difficult thing you are experiencing. Holding that anxiety, that anger, that grief, that worry, with compassion. Knowing we all experience those human emotions, we have all been that 6-year-old caught in worry-mind, unable to sleep. Can we hold ourselves like we would hold a child that doesn’t know what to do with their big feelings?
My 12-year-old son gets caught in worry sometimes too, to where he has trouble falling asleep. In those moments, I have asked myself what I really needed when I was little and crawling into my mom’s bed, telling her I was worried. Mostly just a hug. A snuggle, an “it’s going to be ok.” That’s what I try to provide for him.
We are never perfect parents. My mom was an extraordinarily loving woman, who carried her own stress and anxiety, and sometimes it got on her children. I’ve been there. I know I make mistakes all the time with my kids. But I do my best, just as she did her best.
I try not to let it worry me.
May you live with ease,
Erin Joosse, Source Yoga Studio Director
PS: Are you a worrywart too? Discover your inner resources for self-care and stress resiliency in my upcoming Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction 8-week series, beginning next Tuesday, March 5th. Learn more here.