Beating extreme worry

In the intro to my new book posted yesterday, I mentioned in a footnote that I was maybe damaged by the rough road to success, that “the stress and severe sleep-depreviation reached levels of intensity that actually harmed me.” This is a post about what I meant.

I found myself worrying much too intensely about my wife while she was on a 9-week trip in India this winter. My brain was polluted with crazy worst case scenarios, keeping me up all night in a cold sweat. Extreme Worry is an understandable emotional reaction, after she actually had that disastrous accident in 2010, which actually was a total nightmare scenario — the kind of thing that people reassure you won’t happen, but it did. Given that history, I can forgive myself for becoming a champion worrier, but I also can’t live like that. Like this…

2am, December 20, 2013

As I went to bed, I knew that my wife was just getting started on a short archaeology tour by motorcycle, of the countryside near a small town, Bundi, deep in Rajasthan. I wasn’t thrilled about this. She gave me her expected return time — late morning. With a 13.5 hour time difference, I knew she’d be getting home around 1am my time.

So, naturally, I woke up around 2am, nervous. I had the super-power modern option of checking her location with an app, Apple’s Find My Friends. But that tech is a terrible double-edged sword: if I could confirm she was back in Bundi, I could go back to sleep. If the app couldn’t find her, or showed that she wasn’t home yet, sleep would be hopeless.

After fifteen minutes of agonizing over it, I succumbed to temptation.

Not only wasn’t she “home” yet, she was out in the boonies, on a tiny road, hours away from Bundi, already well past her expected return. This is exactly what I saw:

Screenshot of my wife in Find My Friends app…a long way from Bundi, India … hours late … on a motorcycle … minutes before her signal was lost …

Terrifying! Because of our history, we have some pretty clear agreements about check-ins. Being hours late without a warning was extraordinary. My next dilemma was whether or not to send her a text message, but I didn’t want her to know how crushingly worried I felt — I didn’t want to spoil her good time.

And then … then she disappeared from the map. Too far from a cell tower. Which is actually unusual in India, a country that relies very heavily on wireless.

My blood turned to ice. This was just about the strongest possible challenge to my peace of mind. I had something like a panic attack.1 Horrible!

I sent a message, knowing it wouldn’t reach her until — if — she got back in reach of a cell tower. To my immense, heart-pounding relief, she re-appeared only about ten minutes later.

Hi, hon. All good here. Running late, but having a great time.

Her archaeology tour was awesome, one of the highlights of her trip. But it took an hour or two for my heart to stop clenching.

After this incident, it was completely clear to me: I had to beat the worrying … or never sleep well again.

How do you beat that?

Putting my psyche under the microscope, it’s clear that my worry is ultimately selfish2 and self-pitying: what I’m really worried about is having a bad life, and how unfair and frustrating that will feel to me. If my wife suffers, so will I, and that will suck. Hm. Interesting. Humbling.

But it’s hard to control minds. Even our own. How could I, how could anyone, prevent a worry rampage?

The only method I know is to actively drown out bad ideas with good ones, to practice thinking something less screwed up. So I cooked up a little mantra of reassurances as an antidote. I repeated these hundreds of times until my wife got home:

  1. I refuse to ruin my life by worrying about improbable misfortunes.
  2. Very difficult things are quite rare. Everything is probably just fine: she’s probably just [insert pleasant activity].
  3. But hard things do happen, and no life is guaranteed to go well! I can’t control life, but I can control my reaction to it. If something is wrong, I will do the best I can.

The reminder that “no life is guaranteed to go well” may seem odd form of reassurance, but it contradicts my particular obsession with the unfairness of misfortune. I have a persecution complex. I think know the universe is out to get me, and this is really what dials up the emotional intensity of my worrying. What dials it back down is a reminder that life’s awfulness strikes us all quite arbitrarily.3

  1. Okay, it was actually a panic attack, if you define them as “periods of intense fear or apprehension that are of sudden onset.” Which is in fact how they are defined. ↩︎

  2. The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt:

    “Lucretius’ words therefore rang out the terrible clarity: ‘death is nothing to us.’ To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed. He gave voice as well to a thought I had not yet quite allowed myself, even inwardly, to articulate: to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel.

    “What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.” ↩︎

  3. Correction: it strikes poor people a lot more often and harder than rich people. But otherwise it’s quite random. ↩︎