There is an old pine tree in my front yard that sits just beyond my bedroom window. In the morning, I can watch the birds flying back and forth through its branches while I am still in the bed. When a storm rolls in and the wind picks up, I can see its limbs sway back and forth as I drift off to sleep.
This past winter, we were hit with a blizzard that brought high winds and nearly three feet of snow. My mother called me early on when the snow first started to fall to tell me that she thought we should consider sleeping in a room at the back of the house, far away from the pine tree. She was worried that the wind and heavy snow would bring the tree down, and being in such close proximity to the house, that its branches would come crashing through the house, smashing right through to the bedroom and endangering us in our sleep. “We’ll definitely consider that,” I told her, and then never gave it another thought. This tree must be 100 years old if it’s a day. It has survived other blizzards and hurricanes and countless storms. It is thick and sturdy, and I have no doubt that its roots run deep and long through almost the entirety of our yard. I felt pretty confident that the pine tree wasn’t going anywhere. And it didn’t. It didn’t even lose a single branch.
In case you might think I am sharing this story as a way to poke fun at my poor mother who just wanted to be sure that I was safe, let me share a more recent incident with you. One that has nothing to do with my mom at all.
Our porch light is an old glass light fixture that slowly through the summer fills up with dead and decaying bodies of a bazillion small moths and other bugs. We noticed recently how dim the porch seemed at night and saw that the fixture is about two thirds of the way full of bugs. It is a real pain to clean out because the bottom of the fixture cannot be detached. All you can do is remove the top and attempt to scoop the bug carcasses out with your hand. This is a job I refuse to do because I am too short and it greatly surpasses my gross tolerance. So until my husband decides that he’s ready tackle this disgusting task, the bugs will keep finding their way in and eventually the light may be blocked out entirely. The only harm really is that our porch light won’t be as visible as it usually is. But for some reason I decided the other day that while a bazillion bug bodies pressed up against the light bulb was fine, a bazillion and one would be too many, and the whole thing would almost certainly catch on fire and burn our house down. So I insisted that we shut off the light completely until a time when we can clear out the fixture. I didn’t make this decision the moment I initially saw how full the fixture was, though. I made it later that night, while we were already cozy in bed and I simply couldn’t stop thinking about how the porch light was going to catch fire at any moment.
I am a worrier. My mother is a worrier. Her mother was a worrier. Some families pass down antique jewelry from generation to generation. Ours passes along an irrational fear of incredibly unlikely worst case scenarios. It is no more likely that my porch light will catch fire (as it didn’t last summer in the same situation) than that the giant pine tree in my front yard will come crashing through my bedroom and impale me in my sleep. And yet, while I can write off my mother’s concern as an over-the-top needless worry, it is much more difficult for me to rationally evaluate my own bizarre fears and let them go without another thought.
Over the years, after many pointless concerns have eaten away at my sanity and sleep cycle, I have developed a few methods for addressing these irrational fears and putting the breaks on my worrying before it has a chance to get too far beyond my control.
Designate someone as your rationality meter.
My husband is a very practical person. When something goes wrong, my instinct is to say, “okay, let’s make a list of all the ways this problem can spiral out of control and ruin our entire lives, and then we’ll sit together on the floor and cry about it for an hour.” Whereas he is more likely to suggest that we take a minute to think about how we might resolve the issue, and then simply go about fixing it. I guess his method makes more sense.
Whenever I feel a deep or nagging concern about something I will ask him, “is this something I should be worried about?” and if he’s immediately like, “absolutely not,” I know that I need to just let it go. I like to set my baseline at a state of constant low-grade worry so that if a real concern should arise, I’ll be ready. He only worries when there is actual cause to worry. So if he shows absolutely no concern about something that I assume deserves my full attention and diligent alertness, then I know it’s time to drop it and move along to the next worry. Don’t share your worries with a fellow perpetual worrier. You don’t need to fuel each other’s fires.
Imagine that somebody else has shared this concern with you.
Let’s return to my mother’s worry about the tree. At the time, I couldn’t believe she actually called me to suggest that I sleep in a different room for my own safety. It seemed like a completely unnecessary fear and one that I had no intention of indulging in my own mind for even a second. But again, it’s really no more absurd than my concerns about the stupid bug-filled porch light. And yet, because it was coming from her and not from my own head, I could brush it off as irrational and move along in a way that I can’t with worries I create in my own mind.
It can help to take your own worry and imagine it as a concern that someone else has shared with you. If my mom called me up and said that she was worried that if my porch light got any more bugs in it the whole house would burn down, would my reaction be to think, “well that seems like a completely unnecessary concern”? Yeah, it definitely would be. It can be hard to see a fear as irrational when it is your own fear. Imagine it as someone else’s fear and evaluate its rationality that way. If it would be ridiculous coming from someone else, it’s just as ridiculous coming from you.
Arm yourself with knowledge about what to do in emergency situations.
Trying to anticipate and predict every possible bad outcome no matter how far-fetched doesn’t actually do that much to stop emergencies from arising. Bad things happen. Freak accidents occur. You can’t stop things from going wrong by trying to dream up every worst case scenario ahead of time. Having a plan for what you would do in the case of various emergency situations (how would you get out of your house in a fire? who would you call in the event of an accident? where would you find your insurance info in the event that a pine tree came crashing through your roof?) gives you a greater sense of confidence that you can handle problems as they arise. I used to be concerned that if I was ever in accident or had to be rushed to the hospital or something, my husband might be in a meeting and I wouldn’t be able to get through to him to let him know what happened and get his help if I needed it. So we agreed that if either of us should have an emergency, we would call the other person twice in a row and then send a text that read 911 and that meant, no matter where you are and what you’re doing, drop everything. The only time I ever got into a car accident, go figure my husband was in an important meeting at the time. But when I called twice and sent the 911 text, I knew he would immediately call me back and felt instantly assured that everything would be okay because I knew I would be able to get through to him and he would be on his way to help.
If you do nothing else to try to address your worries, simply having a plan and trusting in that plan for emergencies can go a long way to reducing your fears.
These tips are meant to serve as ways to address concerns that may linger in your mind and make you feel unsettled, but that do not otherwise upset or infringe upon your general quality of life. If you find that you suffer from persistent worry and anxiety that you cannot move past or properly address on your own, or if any of your fears cause you to change your daily habits, or negatively affect your health and lifestyle, you should seek out the help and advice of a mental health professional. While it is true that the world can often feel scary, and that bad things can happen suddenly and unexpectedly, living with persistent, untreated anxiety is not ideal and will not guarantee your safety and wellbeing in the long run. While you may not be able to live a completely worry-free life, you deserve the opportunity to live in a way that is not guided or tempered by fear. Most trees stay standing even in the worst storms. Most lightbulbs burn out long before they can burn anything down. The world is mostly good and safe, and it’s a much better place to live when you can learn to enjoy it rather than fear it.