Worry and Stress

Worry garners alot of attention . Assertiveness training classes surround us. Stress reduction therapists have crowded waiting rooms. Personal physicians continually recommend we keep our “stress level” down, as if there is a true measurable indicator of the so-called stress level. In fact, there is little agreement in the literature about what stress is, and yet, we all agree we have it.

Everywhere stress is discussed as if we all know what we mean. “My job is too stressful;” “Family demands are stressful.” “The volatility of the stock market is stressful.” Depending on the environment in which we operate, almost anything can be experienced as stressful. And, we can worry about any thing, any time, anywhere. The list is literally endless. We can even worry about worrying. Suffice it to say, worry can be very stressful.

What is Stress?

Several years ago I was examining the Holme’s Scale, which is a list comprised of life’s events which are considered stressful. Items such as a death in the family, marriage, birth of a child, moving, on so on, are assigned a numerical score commensurate with the level of stress it induced. The higher your score, the more stressful your life.

But as I looked at each of the items, I noticed something in common about all of them: Each item, in one way or another, was related to loss. For example, working long hours, perhaps 12 -15 hours per day for weeks, maybe months or years at a time, is considered stressful. However, there is also loss involved in that scenario. Numerous hours at work mean the loss of time with family. That, in turn, may correspond to the loss of a depth of intimacy in those relationships. It may even translate to a loss of some of those familial relationships. In this regard, stress might be more effectively managed if viewed as loss.

The problem is, we view loss as a concrete experience, and seldom, if ever, connect it to our subjective experience of stress. Unless there is tangible loss of an object, e.g., a person, a job or the like, our experience is not likely to be labeled a loss. For example, if your family has been the fortunate recipient of new baby, it is correctly labeled an addition, not a loss. Viewed another way, however, family expansion is directly correlated to a LOSS of sleep, autonomy and order, to name only a few. For the older child it means the loss of their status as the only child, or at the very least a powerful loss of time with mother.

All in all, we tend to call this a stressful situation, and it surely is. But “stressful” expressed as a feeling is vague unless we express the feelings of loss specific to the stressful situation. Very often we don’t do that. Instead we mention that we feel “STRESSED,” and that’s where it stops.

In the absence of a more complete expression and examination of the losses inherent in stress, we place WORRY.

Yes, that age old behavior couples argue about all the time: One says, “You worry too much, why not lighten up a little bit!?” The other says, “You don’t worry enough–nothing bothers you!” I won’t speculate as to which position each gender may generally take.

What is Worry?

Worry is an enervator, a demotivater, when it stands alone with no action, no plan or method of dealing with it. Worry eventually paralyzes us when left to run its own course. We tend to let worry take charge when we believe there is nothing we can do. It’s as if we believe that worry should NOT go away, that somehow because it is with us, it is supposed to be.

The dictionary says worry is “that feeling of nagging concern, feeling anxious, distressed or troubled.” We are prone to worry about anything on or off the face of the earth. We may especially worry about the things that stress us and /or be stressed about the things that worry us! Too frequently we fail to determine whether or not our current worry is about something over which we can have control. Consider this: Worrying about something over which you have no control is wasted time and energy, may even raise your blood pressure, can lead to a tight stomach, and without a doubt by anyone’s standards leaves you feeling lousy. Worse yet, it doesn’t even change the situation.

What Can We Do About It?

We Can Change Our Thinking

When the situation is not under our control, what can we do? We can change our thinking. For example, suppose you have a much anticipated trip planned which depends upon excellent weather. The evening prior to departure the weather is changing for the worse, thereby threatening the trip. What do you do, if not worry?

Of several options, one is simply to wait, tell yourself that if it’s not to be this time, there will be a next time. This approach counters the worry belief that “there is no next time,” a stance unwittingly or unconsciously taken when we heavily desire something to happen. In this instance if you believe you can’t go this time because of the weather, but that there will be another time to go when the weather is good, you are thinking accurately. Alas, instead of trying to control the weather, you are controlling your thinking. Somehow that is inherently more realistic. This approach relieves or helps prevent the situation from turning into a “stressful” one.

Some say that worry can motivate us to change something that bothers us. That is true when our worry is about something under our control. For example, you have grown dissatisfied with your current place of employment for a number of significant reasons. In addition, business is in a downturn, and several employees have been laid off (or as is now euphemistically said, “outplaced,” “furloughed.”) You have completed 18 years with the company, recently brought your fourth child into the world, and are very concerned (read “worried”) about the future.

We Can Change Only What Is Changeable

Several months have gone by and the situation at best does not improve. Clearly a hotbed for major league worry, it is also an example where worry can be a motivater. Perhaps you cannot directly control your company’s profitability. And you certainly can’t single handedly turn the tide of lay offs. For starters, how about looking for another job? You’ve thought about that, but have decided your industry is saturated with thousands of others in your same boat. Now you’re really worried. Maybe you feel panicked.

The first goal is to look for those areas where you CAN exert control or change. Those fall into two categories: Thinking, and situations. An example of changing thinking is as follows: “I have always been employable, I am now employable, and I will not be without employment.” Because these are true statements, they help calm the worry. Those thoughts are also considered a form of action. They may also help springboard you into looking for employment even thought you are tempted to believe the job ma. But you can take actions of other sorts. And to take action is to take control.

Make A Plan

As for the situational area, again action is the agent of change. Perhaps you will begin to talk with search people, or begin to shape your method of networking. No matter what you do, you are taking action toward improving your situation. Most, if not all of us have noticed that we feel calmer or less worried when we actually do something about a situation that troubles us. We tend to feel even better when our actions are well thought out, and executed according to design.

There is one more area of worry that deserves attention: OPINION. Of great concern to most, if not all of us, is what other people think of us. How many times have we all said or thought, “WHAT WOULD PEOPLE THINK (OF ME) IF THEY KNEW?!” Or, perhaps you are one who lives life as if every move you make must be carefully enacted so that no one will ever harbor an ill thought of you. Then one day, you are confronted with someones outrageous contempt for you. You are shocked!

Maybe their feelings are based on fiction, maybe on fact, but you are concerned and worried either way. Why do we insist on carrying the belief that what others think, is under OUR control? Clearly, we cannot control what others think. Such a belief can lead to unabated worry. Recently, Dwight Gooden of the New York Yankees pitched a no hitter. Only one pitcher has ever thrown two in a row–Johnny Vandermeer. He happened to have been in the stands when Gooden pitched his no-hitter follow-up game, and voiced that he was glad Gooden had not thrown two in a row.

He mentioned a few reasons (all based on true facts) in support of his sentiment, none of which were favorably in support of Gooden’s character. Later, Mr. Gooden was confronted with what was said, and was asked how he felt about it. His response was perfect: “I can’t worry about that; I have no control over anybodys opinions.” How right he is. An opinion about us is the property of the opinion holder. It need not necessarily reflect on us. Indeed, it may reflect entirely on the holder, and it is there it should be left.

Some Fear That If They Do Not Worry They Will Be Viewed As Uncaring

However, we need to remain steadfast in the belief in ourselves, and continue to understand that we cannot control what others think about us. If someone believes we don’t care because we don’t worry, it is up to us to remain confident that the evidence of our caring is frequently manifested in many other appropriate, healthy and obvious ways. We need not be defensive.


Consider understanding stress in terms of loss, that is, there is loss inherent in that which stress us. Where there is loss, we can create an avenue of expression, and expression of the loss or losses marks the beginning of the alleviation of the stress.

Where stress is comprised of worry, or where worry resides in and of itself, begin to separate within your worry what you can and cannot change or control. If you cannot change the situation, e.g., the weather, someones opinion, a death, then change your thinking. If the situation can be altered, then make your plan, and carry it out so that the situation is changed or altered in a way that reflects your needs.

It is unquestionably human to worry, and impossible to erase all worry from our individual lives. However, we can lessen it by changing our thinking, and by taking action to change our worrisome situation. All we really need to do is determine which belief to change or thought to think, and make attempts to change only that which is changeable.

Contact Dr. Hutt

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