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How I Stopped Worrying So Much

Do you identify as a worrier?

Recently, it was 90 plus degrees outside. Naturally when I got in the car, it was really hot. I rolled down the windows and turned up the air conditioning, but after a minute it was still stifling hot. Like a caffeinated archer my mind slung this arrow: SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THE CAR -- IT'S OVERHEATING -- YOU'RE ABOUT TO GO UP IN FLAMES.

This thought likely originated from something unusual I had seen earlier that day, which had produced a different panic-thought. On the expressway offramp near my house, a small van was on fire. I was driving to pick up my dog from the vet when I saw it. The fire was contained to the car, but the flames were full and luscious, producing great, charcoal-colored smoke billows that could be seen from some distance.

My mind shot off this one: SOMEHOW THIS FIRE HAS GOTTEN TO MY DOG AND HAS KILLED MY DOG. I mean, why not just think that? my mind says. Let's imagine it, Lara, just for fun!

Thoughts are quick as flies dodging swatters. They cannot be repressed or stopped. They cannot be unthought.

Many of my thoughts come in word form. Like text messages to my brain from some psycho. But some are visual. For example, when my daughter was a baby, the act of pushing her in a stroller across an intersection produced this image: a speeding car comes crashing into the stroller, tossing her in the air. She lands, she dies. I'm left unscathed. Cool!

My body registers and expresses these thoughts. In the car, for example, I saw an image of vivacious flames which led to this thought: THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO DIE SUDDENLY, which led to the tingling sensation of cortisol releasing through my chest, which then constricted. My hands gripped the steering wheel, my eyes widened. I glanced around, hypervigilant. If someone was watching me, they'd say that bitch looks worried.

The worrying and the intrusive thoughts are related, but different. The intrusive thoughts are like fireworks, and the worrying is like the lightbulb that's always on in my house.

My mother, of course, is a worrier. Growing up, the light was always on in her house. My sister and I always just knew she worried. You could see the worry in the way her lips moved or turned down, the tone of her eyes, her position on the couch on which she dozed as she waited for us to come home at night.

I grew up with the worry in my mom, but also around my mom. Worry radiates. It's contagious. It wants to spread, NOW. Worry loves more worry. Worry hates when you slow down and look at it.

Senior year of high school, I got really good at school. I wasn't trying to get into a great college. And my grades had never been terrible, but I started getting mostly As. The light at the end of the high school tunnel illuminated some desire to succeed, to go out with a bang.

But the motivation to succeed had a shadow side. I started caring more. So the stakes around test and homework and overall performance were higher. Worry is the shadow side of caring. So I freaked out one night at the kitchen table. It was like I got a nosebleed. One drop of blood fell, more followed. I started talking really fast to my mom about all the shit I had to do.

My mom calmed me down. She was like my tissue. I got blood all over her, but she wasn't fazed. (Moms are the best.) A worrier herself, she recognized the worry and instinctively knew it's counterbalance: trust, faith, calm. A warm detachment from the source of worry, reflected in her tone of voice. It'll be fine. You'll get it done. Slow down. You'll be okay.

The worry got my mom's attention. It evoked a kindness and understanding I didn't know I was craving. I was a squeaky wheel who got the grease. Was there value in worry? A social value?

People get it when you gripe, when you worry out loud. Sometimes, when someone asks me how I am, I will bring up the worst shit going on with me, because it makes for a more interesting conversation. Or I feel like I'm being more honest. Like, life is so hard and I'm really in it, I'm saying to the person, in so many words. I feel like maybe I'm bonding and having a good time with this person, but I'm still stomping around in the worry swamp.

Over time, the worry began to convince me of this interesting twist: If you worry enough about something, it won't happen in real life.

When I was a teenager, my parents went on a vacation and left my sister and I home alone for almost a week. My grandparents lived in the coach house behind us, offering a light, senior-citizen style of supervision.

We had parties of course, and I was super happy about all of it. But I also became aware that I was terrified of my parents dying in a plane crash. While lying on the couch reading a horror novel, my mind whipped a fast one at me: IF I IMAGINE THEM DYING IN A PLANE CRASH, IT WON'T HAPPEN.

I was a witch who worked in reverse: I didn't cause things to happen with my powers, I prevented things with my worry. But I had to really imagine it, you know? Like really torture myself with graphic mental images. Fun!

And guess what everyone? It worked. Because they're still alive. SEE?!?!?!?

When I started with my current therapist, one of the first things we talked about was the nature of Mind. Buddhism has long been the religion that most resonates with me, so the topic of Mind wasn't new, and I thought something like this: Oh, that again. Well I already know about that and I'm still fucked up a lot of the time.

My therapist gave me a stat about how many thoughts a person thinks in a day. This article on Healthline says it's more that 6,000. Many are worry-thoughts. Worry-thoughts that you're not even aware of, and yet they color your day. You don't even know why you're feeling so agitated or grumpy, but there's a vague psychic hum of discontent, and it's probably because you're thinking some creeper thoughts.

I've been meditating alone and with my temple sangha regularly for more than a decade, and I've been in therapy for years. Only recently did I have an insight that changed the game for me.

I stopped referring to all of these worry thoughts as "mine." I even stopped referring to my mind. I removed the possessive. Now, it's just "Mind." When I notice myself subsumed in a worry-orgy-- and the more I meditate, the more I notice it-- I will think, Mind's gonna mind.

This gives me so much relief it's insane. Room. Spaciousness. I'm not as swayed by the craziness. If it doesn't belong to me, I can give it away. To what or to whom do I give them? To nothing, to no one. Because the thoughts are nothing. They are mere nothingness!

Buddhist teachers often talk about people chasing their thoughts like a dog chasing a stick. My temple teacher Noara recently extended the metaphor in a dharma talk. If you throw a stick near a tiger, the tiger will not chase the stick. Rather, it will attack the thrower. So, BE THE TIGER. When I have the wherewithal to notice Mind minding, I am the motherfucking tiger.

But a calm, trusting, faithful tiger. Like my mom, when she helped calm my worry that time.

The meditation teacher Jeff Warren says Mind secretes thoughts like stomach secretes digestive enzymes. We're all this way. Mind's gonna mind.

There is a tremendous, overwhelming sense of ownership and identity when it comes to the thoughts we think. HUGE. All of the anecdotes I share in this post are specific and center around my concept of MY self and MY life-experience and how MY mind works. And all of that's real, to an extent.

But this is also real: Trillions of minds inhabit the planet. My mind is unique, but it isn't special. Your mind is unique, but it isn't special. It's a part of nature, like a tree. More like a cloud. The Buddhist concept of no-self comes into play here, but that's a whole other ball of wax.

Mind is powerful. Especially collectively, it has immense destructive and creative power. But a lot of the time Mind's just rolling out some bullshit. Sometimes it's fascinating or even useful bullshit, but mostly it's repetitive and boring. Now, I'm less inclined to roll out the red carpet for the repetitve and boring bullshit. Mind's like LOOK AT ME, and I'm like, eh.

I still have a lot of intrusive thoughts, especially about mass shootings when I'm in a crowd of people (yay, America.). These fucking suck. They are difficult, but I see them. I breathe. I put my hand on my heart. Mind's gonna mind. Or maybe I recite a mantra. Or a prayer. They pass.

(On a side note, these particular intrusive thoughts have led me to volunteer with Moms Demand Action.)

For some folks, the worry-mind and the intrusive thoughts are a lot worse. Medication may be necessary. For me, meditation is necessary. Every time I sit, I think of it as filling my well, so I can draw on my practice in times when my mind is horny for a worry-orgy.

So truthfully, I haven't stopped worrying. This headline is clickbait. Hope you don't MIND.

What's your worry experience? Does anything really help you?


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