To Worry or Not to Worry: A Psychological Black Hole

I’m sure you have experienced being thoroughly exhausted after a day of concentrating hard on some project or task. It seems that we do have a limited amount of energy to expend in the course of a day. Stress is a particularly high energy user given that we are in a heightened state, preparing to deal with real or perceived threats.

One of the most obvious and often talked about ways of reducing energy loss is to distinguish between what is worth worrying about and what is not. We’ve all heard aphorisms such as,

‘When you are riding a dead horse, it is time to dismount’, and

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. There’s even a book by the same name.

Despite being thrown around like confetti, I find in my lifestyle and management coaching sessions that the tendency to worry about stuff that we cannot do anything about is still alive and well. It seems that our emotional centre takes over and reasoning goes out the window and we expend enormous amounts of time and energy in what can best be described as a psychological black hole. In short, it is common for people to worry about things that they cannot change. What a waste of time and effort.

The other side of the coin involves not worrying about things on which we should be spending our energy. Perhaps we have a job for which we are totally unsuited, someone is bullying us and making our life a misery, our relationship is in trouble, my child is not behaving well, my addiction is making me unhealthy, there are changes ahead that I am avoiding: it can be a long list. But these are very important, big picture items and they need our attention. But it is just too hard.

Interestingly, we have a bunch of psychological mechanisms that prevent us becoming anxious in the face of a psychological threat. These mechanisms are trying to be help us by reducing anxiety but, often, they enable us to sweep things under the carpet until they fester and turn into a nasty fungus that becomes untreatable.

Mindfulness, awareness, helps us recognise (by thinking about it) that we are in fact worrying about something you have no control about, and then decide to put it out of your mind or take action. There is a technique known as self-talk that is useful in challenging unwanted fears.

Mindfulness also makes us aware that there is something we should take action about but are denying or rationalising in some way (avoiding). Even though it might be painful to begin with, it is important to take action, to be courageous. I’ve known people who have preferred to live in misery or at least live in unsatisfactory circumstances for years and, later, regret that they didn’t do the right thing earlier. Life is short.