Monday, February 22, 2010

Excessive Worrying and How to Stop

Dear Mrs. D., These days I'm feeling bad about everything. The Republicans, global warming, food additives, cholesterol, eating meat, not composting, not recycling (enough), not giving to Amnesty International, or Emily's List, or The Farmworkers or Morris Dees or the Democratic Party, etc., etc. (can't afford it and who wants to employ charity triage?), going off my diet, my greying hair, my addiction to Hugh Laurie and mindless television, the disgusting state of American culture, pervasive violence against women in this country and all over the world, people who don't know the difference between "its" and "it's", Sarah Palin; I worry about the president, the economy, the terrible psychological toll of the job losses in this country, the greed on Wall Street, the upcoming elections, Sarah Palin, the religious right, Haiti, New Orleans...and much, much more. There doesn't seem to be any place to put my mind where things are good and decent. How many Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda/ Gregory Peck movies can a girl watch? Can you help? And please don't tell me about sunsets and rainbows, new babies and chocolate - well, chocolate maybe. Signed, Disconsolate
Oh, dear darling Disconsolate, I usually edit and shorten reader questions. However, yours was so heartfelt and, in its own way, funny, that it's one of the few I've used nearly verbatim (and did you notice the correct use of "its" and "it's" in that sentence? Yes, you're welcome.). 
First off, by all means employ chocolate if that helps. I will NOT tell you to think about sunsets and rainbows, unless those make you happy. Don't think about new babies, because that brings on thoughts of sleep deprivation, massive amounts of laundry, post-partum depression, and years and years of responsibility and heartache and possibly visits to Chuck E. Cheese, none of which will improve your mood.
Seriously, though, there are a ton of things you can do to lift your mood. I'm just going to throw out the list of stuff that I've found helpful.
1. Easy, easy, easy, and profoundly life-changing: Keep a gratitude journal. Mine is an old spiral bound notebook that one of the kids discarded. If you prefer to go shopping for a finely bound, beautiful journal, go for it. But get something to write in, and here's what you do: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you're grateful for. Anything is game: I'm grateful for the air I breathe. I'm grateful for my bed. For my internet connection. For today's sunshine. For today's birdsong. For Hugh Laurie and mindless television. For the water I just used to brush my teeth. For my toothbrush. For my teeth. You get the idea. I challenge you to do this for three weeks and not feel a lifting of your mood.
I try to do the same thing in the morning, but usually I just roll out of bed, think "Thank you," and get moving. Doing it at night is my current version of saying my nightly prayers, and it's lovely.
2. Walk. Preferably in the fresh air. Even if the fresh air is full of flying water droplets. Every day. Really.
3. If you absolutely MUST feel bad about things, set your timer for five minutes and spend that five minutes listing, out loud, everything you feel  bad about. You could start with the wonderful letter you wrote me and go on from there. Sometimes just naming things takes the sting away.
4. Do NOT try to talk yourself out of your worries. You feel bad about certain stuff. You feel worried. That's reality.
However, don't believe everything you think. 
5. Do NOT try to convince yourself that things will never change. Unless you are Psychic Queen of the Universe, you don't know that six months from now things will still look as bleak as they do today. 
6. If you are feeling really down or anxious, see a psychiatrist and talk about mood-altering meds. Really. No shame in it. The study of brain chemistry is fascinating; the bad news is that the more you think a thought, the more deeply that way of thinking gets grooved into your brain (yup, just like a vinyl record). The excellent, exciting, terrific news is that YOUR BRAIN IS PLASTIC or malleable or whatever term you'd like to use. You can change those grooves with: medication, exercise, meditation, gratitude journals, piano playing, painting, deep breathing, praying, and on and on and on.
7. Increase your intake of water...not tea, not coffee, not Diet Coke. Water. Lots of it.
8. RIGHT NOW, go get a scrap of paper and write down five things you're grateful for. Email them to me, using the comments section below or go to
Questions? Comments? Love to hear what you're all thinking. And as usual, thanks for reading.


  1. You are wise, Mrs. Ditter. I already employ #2 and #7 but here's your list:

    1. My awesome nuclear family, including almost-13-y-o twins who are not yet mean to me, and a dreamboat of a husband.

    2. Gainful employment, at a time when no one can take that for granted.

    3. New York City. 26.5 years. Alternate-side parking is about the only thing that ever makes me contemplate leaving.

    4. My friends, old, new, and unmet-in-person- as-yet, including you.

    5. Now that I'm 47, I completely get why "my health" should be making this list every single time. B/c things are starting to go, but not yet in a way that impacts my life too, too much.

  2. OK - here's what I got: 1)roof over my head 2) hot shower and flush toilets 3)nice house 4) good husband 5) wonderful sister and I found another: 6) great friends. I'll think about your advice, although some of it seems a little too touchy-feely for me, ( gratitude journal) but since I trust you, I'll try it. I look at my list of 6 and think what a fool I must be to be complaining when I have so much. Was that your point? The problem is now I get to add "I'm such a fool" to my previous list.
    - Disconsolate still

  3. Katherine: Thanks! And yeah, your health is a big deal. Things are starting to go here, too, like eyesight and muscle tone and lung capacity on long runs, but I'm grateful for what's left.
    Anonymous: Hmm. You must be the one who left the question? Oh, Honey, by adding "I'm such a fool" to your list, you have totally missed the boat (she screamed lovingly). The gratitude you have for what you have (hmm, I could construct that more clearly but won't bother to do so) takes nothing away from the fact that you worry about other stuff. It's NOT about beating yourself up. It's not about "OMG people in Haiti war in Afghanistan I have nothing to complain about and I'm a jerk". You live where you live, emotionally. And that's where you start from. It helps you not one whit to compare yourself to those less fortunate than you and feel bad that you're not more grateful. It's about NOTICING what you have and being grateful MORE OFTEN for what you have. That's all. Be gentle with yourself, even if that's something you're not used to.
    Also: the gratitude journal. It's really not touch-feely at all. It's just words on a page. You're not going to turn into an airy-fairy New Age bobblehead doll, okay? Just do it; no fancy journal needed; scraps of paper are fine; just suck up the fear that it will turn you into someone you're not and write the damn words down, okay? Let me know how that goes.

  4. today I am grateful for shoulder surgery that turned out to be much less extensive than expected (and therefore I can type with two hands today); for my wonderful husband, children, and mother; for friends who call/visit/e-mail when I'm sick or recovering from surgery; for a spiritual community that stands with me in good times and bad; for rain that makes flowers bloom in February (well, that's a little bit of a stretch, but I'm trying to see the upside of rain); and for really good hot chocolate.