James Donovan: Aren’t you worried?
Rudolph Abel: Would that help?
A couple of times in the Tom Hanks movie, “Bridge of Spies”, based on real-life events, Tom Hanks’ character James Donovan lays out potentially terrible scenarios to Mark Rylance’s character Rudolph Abel. Each time, Hanks follows up by asking, “Aren’t you worried? You don’t seem concerned…” … and every time, Rylance responds thoughtfully, calmly and curiously, “would it help?”:
Rylance (who won an Oscar for this portrayal) captures so well a steady, practical, curious (and Abel 😜) approach to the suggestion he might be worried – and you get the feeling that if worry would help then he’s all in and willing to give it a go. If it wouldn’t help, then no…
As a worrier from childhood into my deep twenties, it’s a topic that is close to my heart. I hope this post helps you, if you too tend to worry.
The worry bucket
It can be handy to keep a pen and paper next to your bed for this, together with a way to dim your bedside lamp.
Part one: schedule a time to deliberately worry
So the idea is that every now and then, when everything seems too much, you tip your worries out into a “Worry Bucket”. To do this, draw an outline of a bucket in a notebook, or on one of those big rolls of paper from Ikea. Here is an outline to use, if you like.
Then every day, or once a week, at a time you decide on, you set a timer and tell yourself that for the next 20 minutes, you are going to Worry on purpose. If you find it helpful, surround yourself with comforting things (maybe some calming music, a cup of tea, some shells or stones which are comforting to hold, and a few squares of really excellent chocolate – yes comfort eating can be fine and in this case is totally recommended 😊)
Then for those 20 minutes, allow the adrenaline to pump as you write down each worry inside the bucket – from the wildest, most extreme worry, to the smallest, most tiny worry.
At the end of your 20 minutes, remind yourself that these worries will get the attention they need, and you pack everything up for next time, and move on with your day.
When a worry shows up later, add it to the bucket.
Part two: go through your worries one by one, being proactive
For this strategy to work, you do need to do this part as well – not just to create solutions, and avoid compounding your anxiety, but to show yourself that you have your own back and can rely on yourself to follow through.
Once a day, or once a week, take out your Worry Bucket and your comforting things. Tell yourself that for half an hour (or whatever length of time feels right for you), you’re going to address your worries, being as practical as possible about each.
Go through each item on the list.
Decide which worries are within your control. If there is something you can change, write down in your diary one small step you can take and when this will be – you will then know, for example, that on the 6th of June at 9am, you will google where to study tree-top flute playing… – so that you don’t need to carry it in the back of your mind as a “to do”.
Part three: the things you can’t change
The things beyond our control can be the trickiest, the “stickiest” as we say in ACT, the most worrisome… and the funny, ever helpful old brain thinks that if there’s no obvious solution, it just has to work harder, worry harder, to find one 🙄
Don’t lose hope though.
When there’s not much, if anything, you can do to sort out a worry, there are a few things still to experiment with:
- be curious about the function of worry: is it pretending to be useful – by keeping you busy, keeping you distracted from feeling emotional pain (in the process making this worse in the long run), keeping you searching for solutions endlessly? Might caring, planning, problem-solving, and then when all that is done, re-focusing on life itself – be more useful than worry?
- be gentle with yourself: worry is exactly what our brains are wired to do when faced with uncertainty. We have inherited the genes of cave people for whom worry was useful, and saved them from sabre-toothed tigers. So our minds will worry – but we can still be in charge of it, rather than it in charge of us.
- don’t underestimate your ability to cope with whatever comes your way; and it may never come your way at all. As Hagrid says, “No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it. What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does..
2. Surfing the thoughts and feelings of worry
When worry shows up, notice this, and name it (for example “worrying, worrying”; or, “oh yes, there’s the bag-lady-under-the-bridge worry again”)… gently making space for the adrenaline rush and the thoughts, slowing your breathing, and re-focusing on what you’re doing. As you lengthen your breath and relax your muscles, you could say to yourself something like,
This feels uncomfortable, this worry and doubt… it’s nothing dangerous though, it doesn’t need to be the enemy… I can make space for this, breathe in to it, let it move through…
With practice, the habit of worrying really does fade, and worries become less intense and frequent, and easier to step back from. And when they don’t, well, more on this below; but at least You will be in charge, rather than worry pushing you around.
3. Prayer or visualisation
Some people find it helpful to write the worry on a scrap of paper and put it in to a special box, with a prayer, blessing or wish for resolution and peace. One of my clients sees her worries as scraps of cloth, which she pictures herself draping on a cross. Another visualises the worry as a black cloud, tethered to her, and a big pair of gold scissors cuts the cord.
4. Research it more, or bounce ideas with a friend or mentor
In the spirit of problem-solving rather than rumination, you could make a note in your diary to revisit and maybe research your worries later on, with a friend, a mentor, a mastermind group or a book – and maybe (I’m whispering this one), Google.
Be weary not just of “dr google” and chat rooms, but of going around in unproductive “me too” type circles of rumination with a friend; this can make both of you feel worse. In the same way it can be tempting to re-read your journal entries, reinforcing worry pathways each time you re-read a page – scan these rather, if you really need to.
5. Two books you could try, to learn more
- The worry trick: how your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it, by David Carbonell
- The worry trap, by Chad LeJeune
When all else fails…
Last year we went through something as a family that severely challenged the usefulness of every single technique I knew – I found it impossible not to worry, and impossible to step back from the worries for even a moment, until we had a resolution of sorts… and I guess sometimes in life this is just how it is.
I think all that one can do at times like these is to allow the waves of adrenaline and worry to carry you. Problem-solve where you can, reach out for support, and soothe yourself in whatever ways feel truly comforting (smiles about comfort eating aside, daily shadow comforts such as chocolate, fast food and wine will of course make you feel worse in the long-term).
You may need to re-focus often, on what you are doing – even if this activity seems irrelevant in the face of the worry – and be willing to make space for that feeling of irrelevance, even as you chop the veggies. As Anne Lamott writes,“Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking”… you will reach land again, even if tumbled, tuckered.
I will say though, I’m curious to try a Rudolph Abel approach next time, cool as a cucumber, a little curious, and practical… if you give this a try, or any of the other techniques mentioned here, do drop me a line and let me know how it goes!
The Serenity Prayer
God grant me the serenity to
Accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can; and
Wisdom to know the difference