Extreme worrying: not for the faint-hearted

I am a champion in an extreme sport – something perilous and fraught with danger. So what is it? White water rafting? Bungee jumping? Skydiving? Extreme ironing?

Ha, no. I laugh in the face of such reckless pursuits. Well, when I say I laugh in their faces, I kind of do it from a great distance, in a non-participatory sort of way. My sport is one I have worked at for years, day in, day out, often through the night too. My dedication to excellence in this field, my commitment to outstanding achievement in this discipline, is the stuff true champions are made of.

Will you see me proudly wearing a gold medal in the London Olympics? Alas, no. Because, in truth, there are no rewards for champions in my sport. It’s dangerous, but unexciting. It’s demanding, physically and mentally, but lacks the thrill and white-knuckle experiences associated with other extreme sports. My sport, ladies and gentlemen, is extreme worrying.

I’m a born worrier. I think it’s in my blood. It’s something I learned when I was young – probably in my teens – and worked on through my twenties, but true mastery didn’t come to me until I was in my thirties, loosely coinciding with fatherhood. Having children gives the extreme worrier something really substantial to fret over. And when you’re already a cutting-edge worrier, this extra potential for worrying can mark you out from the rest of the field.

One of my inspirations for worrying is Mr Worry, one of Roger Hargreaves’ marvellous Mr Men. Mr Worry is a legendary worrier. He is a benchmark, a pacemaker – the one who sets the gold standard for other worriers to follow. He worries about everything and everybody. One day, though, he meets a helpful wizard, as you do, and the wizard tells him to write a list of everything he is worried about. It is a long list, but the wizard pledges to make sure none of these onerous things ever happen. For a week, Mr Worry hasn’t a care in the world. But oh dear, what’s this? Monday morning has come around and Mr Worry is worried again (a familiar feeling for many of us, I’m sure). But why? What is bothering him?

“I’m worried because I don’t have anything to worry about!”

This is where I am like Mr Worry. I am capable of worrying about everything, anything and nothing – often all at once. There are times when this is actually useful. A spot of worrying can make you really good at planning in meticulous detail and ensuring that multiple projects are delivered on time, to a high standard and all the rest of it.

But extreme worrying is not helpful. It is destructive. Once you start down the path of extreme worrying, you are likely to enter other, darker domains – stress, anxiety, depression… This is the reason extreme worrying is dangerous. Along with its sinister companions, it attacks your confidence, withers your self-esteem, stops you looking forward to anything, and takes you by the hand into the unwelcoming world of mental illness. This is a world inhabited by the likes of Paul Brookes, my cruel and dastardly alter-ego. Brookes feasts on worry. It is his staple diet. It nourishes him, and at times of extreme extreme worry he gorges himself silly on a lustful binge of worry on toast, with worry sauce and a side portion of worry, washed down with a worry smoothie and finished off with a worry sundae and a cafetière of freshly ground worry. With some worry mints perched on the edge of his saucer.

After belching and smugly leaning back in his chair, he looks into my mind with a glint in his eye and sees there is more worry to be had. Is he full? Never. “Bring on the worry,” he says. “I am a hungry Brookes.”

Brookes has been getting rather plump lately. He has enjoyed a rich and varied diet of worry. There are worries about things that are perhaps worth worrying about, things that aren’t really worth worrying about, things that DEFINITELY aren’t worth worrying about and things that are actually good things but can still be worried about if you offer them to Brookes and invite him to twist them into something that generates pressure, fear or anxiety.

And this is one of the most tricky problems for the extreme worrier to deal with. Worrying, stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression don’t just feed the likes of Paul Brookes: they feed each other, creating a destructive circle of self-critical, self-loathing, resentful, angry thoughts.

There is a lot of advice and support available for the extreme worrier, but if, like me, you are prone to sinking in the quicksand of depression, you might become skilled in ignoring it. I have a Bible verse on my wall, offering wise and true words about why I shouldn’t worry:

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

I ignore this exquisite nugget of common sense every day. Worrying is, by and large, pointless, as the verse suggests. Extreme worrying is not just pointless – it’s potentially the start of a slippery slope into greater mental torment. So if you’re a worrier, especially if you’re an extreme worrier, try doing the following things that I’m trying – but rarely managing – to do myself:

  • Do what you can to examine your worries and whether you really need to worry about them.
  • If you do need to worry about them, act on them so you don’t have to worry about them any more.
  • If you can’t do anything about them, accept that you can’t do anything about them.
  • Recognise the good things in your life and enjoy them.
  • Try to put everything in perspective.
  • Be kind to yourself.

Mr Worry is a great character but not a great role model. Mr Happy might be too big a stretch for me at the moment, but I can at least try to enjoy being Mr Silly or Mr Funny and see where that takes me.


29 Comments on “Extreme worrying: not for the faint-hearted”

  1. Janine Pickering says:

    Good advice. I didn’t realise actually what a big part worry plays in my struggle with depression till reading this. I think I so used to worrying all the time, it’s part of my personality now. For instance, I was really anxious & worried about a meeting at work. Expected the worst (as you do, ha) but I came out of it feeling quite positive. Since then I analysed it to death & started worrying about it again! It’s difficult not to let worry eat away at you. But, I’ll definately try those points & see how I get on. Fingers crossed : )

  2. Rebecca says:

    Definitely destructive, my ex-Mil was a tight ball of hate and rage. Her worries were of protecting her money and her ego. She spewed venom non-stop and fretted about being the center of attention or at least relevant. Others’ accomplishments threatened her and because she was alone she sabotaged every relationship her son/”spouse” (my ex) ever had. Sadly, he is her pawn with the same empty soul and skewed values and ethics.

  3. Sue Morey says:

    As a fellow sufferer of ‘Extreme Worrying’, anxiety & depression, this has been by far the biggest improvement anti-depressants have made to my life. Whilst still suffering periods of depression, the peace that I now generally feel (without all the excessive worrying), makes such a huge difference to my everyday life & my ability to function.

  4. Sheila Herd says:

    That’s a great post, I am a fellow worrier, though a lot better now than I used to be LOL The funny thing is people actually think I’m really chilled so I put on a great front!

  5. lycorislily says:

    I think I too may be an Extreme Worrier; I actually commented to a friend a week ago that I am so effective at worrying I ought to get paid for it. I suppose if that were possible, at least there would be a point to it…

    It’s strange (not to mention frustrating) how the rational part of my mind knows all too well that fretting is not productive, yet the moment I let my mind wander it all too often strays back into worrying…

  6. I have also described myself as a champion worrier. I have been trained since I was little by my mother who was also a champion worrier. I have practised worrying every day for so many years that I am an expert. It has caused me depression and anxiety and I continue to suffer daily. I fear there is little hope for change now:(

  7. asylumman says:

    I can absolutely relate to this. I’ve been there too, in the vicious circle of worry -> less self-confident -> less effective as a result -> reduced self esteem -> worry. And so on. And so forth. Actually I think having kids has helped me; given me perspective and all that, but I can well see that having children afffects worriers differently.

    In my case the worrying manifests itself in relatively harmless ways like having to get to places ridiculously early (i’ve been more than 2 hours early to meetings – I call in Earliness Disease) to far more corrosive impacts such as keeping quiet when I should say something lest it be wrong and not having the confidence to contribute as I know I can.

    Managing it is a nightmare. Sometimes I think I’m getting better, and then something will happen and I’ll go into a spiral. Depression often lies at the bottom, and I can be there for weeks or months.

    The best tactics I can come up with are saying things like “In the long term we’re all dead, so it can’t matter that much anyway” and “How wrong can I really get this ?” An utterly inspiring Director I once had once said to me “If you’re not making any mistakes it’s because you’re not taking enough risks”.

  8. Marshtown says:

    Yup. Been there. It’s exhausting. So familiar that it takes you making a gentle dig at yourself to remind me such dominating feelings are not obligatory. Hard to give up the bad habit though. But interesting trying out different attitudes.

  9. Ah, worrying! Amazing how many people have left comments relating to this…. Can so identify, especially since having children.

    Some things I have learnt… The basis of worrying is (as you identify) actually beneficial. When we are prepared for the worst case scenario, it means we put things in place to stop that from happening. We worriers are not the ones at work who will ever say ‘gosh, I never thought that could happen!’ We don’t get taken over by ‘gun ho’ ideas. We might not seem to be charming and charismatic, – we’re not gonna be the famous sales people who sell that idea, but if you want a job done well, with every detail taken care of (and the devil is always in the detail), everyone knows, ask a worrier!

    I reckon worrying comes from the Stone Age. When the camp was always in danger from the elements, wild animals, other tribes, etc, we had to post a ‘look out’ on duty to keep the camp safe and warn the rest of the tribe danger might be on the way. That person was actively looking for any threat to the tribe. Chances are, certain people were picked for having better senses, being better at reading the landscape and being more intuitive to their surroundings. Bit like today, some of us will be better at this than others. But, I reckon, it was sod’s law that the poor guy who was good at this was expected to always do it. When he wanted to go out and catch some dinner and use up some of his adrenaline, he was told ‘no, you stay and watch the camp, you’re good at that, noone else has your eye sight, hearing, perception….’ So he never got a chance to run off his stress, develop his other skills and over time he developed an acute extra perception which was handed down to his children and his children’s children…

    Perhaps he was a hero in the camp, perhaps they appreciated just how special these skills were and his family got the best of the meat. Even then I reckon, most of the time he was too busy watching to really enjoy his food and could never really relax. While his tribe came back with the kill, he couldn’t join in with the stories of amazing hunts and catches and sleep around the dying embers of the fire, physically exhausted and totally relaxed, knowing his mate was keeping an eye on the camp. Kind of lonely really…..

    When you think of how long it takes to evolve, the time from the stone age to now is relatively short, so there are still some of us poor peeps who spend our lives scanning the landscapes, physically and emotionally, watching for threats and thinking… what if?? The trouble is, there are still threats around – the wild animals have been replaced by money, health, children’s education. We don’t worry about wild animals, what the weather might bring and what other tribes are plotting to take over (or maybe we do!), but instead we worry about… is the noise the car is making serious, or can it keep going till payday, will I keep my job with all these redundancies, how will I pay the mortgage… what’s the effect on my children of me not being able to afford the latest designer gear for their non school uniform day, will it scar them for life??…. what’s this lump…. is my family truly happy, do I need to mow the lawn before winter….?? the list is endless as we lead more complicated lives. Also, we live in nuclear families, we don’t have a team of strong, capable people behind us to deal with the threat when it arrives. We’re not only the watchpeople, we’re also the ones who have to deal with it. We have noone to warn… We’re on lookout without a break and we know we have to deal with whatever we perceive. Hence exhaustion, depression…. and a very fat alter ego!

    To be fair, this is my theory, you won’t find it in Freud, Jung or Rogers, but knowing human nature, I can so imagine it happening.

    So, I reckon I am a watchman (ok, watchwoman!). While my hubbie sleeps the sleep of the dead, I worry about the monsters who might be threatening our little camp… until I finally fall into an exhausted coma which is neither restful, productive or refreshing. Sadly, I have noticed in my eldest the same tendency, so I think she’s inherited my role. Bless her, my junior watchwoman… something else for me to worry about!

    But (and here’s my antidote!) You’re right, the Bible does say ‘who can add a day to their lives by worrying?’, but the Bible’s great because it always offers an alternative. It not only says ‘don’t worry’, it also tells us how to stop. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 – ‘give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’. Ok, if you’re not a Christian, this might be a bit hard to understand, but there’s a principle here which wll starve our fat alter egos…. instead of thinking ‘what if…’, I try and think, ‘thank goodness for…..’. It can be as simple as ‘thank goodness my girls have got to this age and I’m still here to guide them…’, ‘thank goodness for the moment we do have a roof over our heads and we are warm and dry, with food in our bellies’, ‘thank goodness I have the internet and can connect with people who do get me’, ‘I am not alone’. thinking about whatever is good, whatever is noble, etc – another verse!, will slightly change our brain chemistry and raise those wonderful feel good hormones. Yes, my own alter ego will try and resist these thoughts and when I’m truly down, it’s incredibly hard to come out of.. but this change of thought pattern can work in the beginning stages for me, before I really hit the skids. It can stop me hitting the skids. It’s taught me to appreciate all the little things in life which I take for granted. I think the technical phrase for it might be ‘mindfulness’, which can be really helpful for depression… When you start hearing that voice which will fill you with worry, it might be worth trying to switch to becoming really aware of your surroundings and concentrate on them and (I know this sounds like a total cliche) really look at the positives and count your blessings. But, it does take a lot of practice, so don’t expect results straight away!

    Of course everyone’s depression is different and what works for one of us won’t work for all of us, but what’s to lose? And, going back to the Stone Age, it was only when the tribes starting talking to each other and shared their strategies for defeating the elements and animals that they really started to progress…..

    Sorry this is so long, but maybe it’s given someone a laugh and like I say, we watchmen/woman are not alone!

  10. Depression robbed me of my wonderful father. He went from being a brilliant, creative man, whose talents, gifts and love for life became completely lost to the dreaded disease. I thought he didn’t love me anymore, I was too young to realise he was severely depressed. It has also touched me periodically and one of my beautiful daughters once. It’s the devil’s work, it makes you feel so alone (hence the watchman theme), but if you and those who read your blog are brave enough to write about how you experience it, then I’m happy to be part of your army (if you’ll have me), and share some of the limited arsenal of weaponery I have with you!

  11. Sorry, me again, if anyone’s interested, try putting this into your search: http://www.bemindful.co.uk It kind of says more succinctly all I’ve rambled about! I’m not suggesting anyone does the course, but being aware of your surroundings physically can be a big help when the worries pile in. I’ll shut up now!

  12. superb advice, much like myself!

  13. […] I am an expert worrier, so this verse (Matthew 6:27) calls out at me loud and clear. Worrying is normal, but excessive […]

  14. Dippyman says:

    […] I am an expert worrier, so this verse (Matthew 6:27) calls out at me loud and clear. Worrying is normal, but excessive […]

  15. David says:

    Brilliant! Thank you for sharing.

  16. […] and had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t look forward to anything – instead, everything made me anxious and worried. My confidence and self-esteem seeped away, as did my […]

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