"You Don't Have to" Series, Reducing Stress

You Don’t Have to: Worry

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff; and it’s all small stuff.’
– Richard Carlson

Our team at work recently had Justin Langlois join us as an artist-in-residence for a year to provide artistic input on our sustainability initiatives. As icing on the cake, his final project was a new public art piece in False Creek:

Personally I love the sign.  There’s certainly plenty to be worried about in Vancouver, whether it’s exploding housing costs, rapid population growth, pipelines vs. pinot, and looming sea level rise.

But to this the art-piece poses the open-ended question: should I be worried? Maybe….. or maybe not.

I’ve been doing plenty of worrying lately. I’ll be lying in bed, on a bee-line towards dreamland when I’m suddenly struck by a brick of anxiety. It typically falls in one of three categories:

  1. Day-to-day things: ‘did I leave the car lights on?’ ‘Yikes I have that big presentation tomorrow,’ or ‘my head hurts. Is it a tumor!?’ 
  2. World issues I can’t do anything about: think tension in North Korea, coral reef bleaching or a Mexico border wall. 
  3. Or my own past and future: Can we afford to support a family? Do my coworkers think I’m a good employee? I’m getting older so quickly. Or most painful of all: why did I waste money on that soft pretzel maker? The list goes on. 

That being said, don’t get me wrong: worrying can be very useful.  However, I need to stress a very important distinction:

Worrying without action is pointless. 

Let me repeat that. Simply worrying is not productive in any way. In fact it’s very much counter-productive. But worrying, then analyzing that worry, and then tackling the root problem can be massively effective.

Did you see the Matt Damon movie ‘The Martian’? Mark Watney, a clever engineer-turned-astronaut gets stranded on Mars after a space mission gone wrong. Instead of succumbing to his fate,  and stressing about his very likely demise, he takes stock of his situation and he ‘gets to work.’

Mark repeats this tactic at the end of the movie (spoiler alert) to a class of wannabe astronauts, reading off common questions he gets about his experience on Mars. Here’s a screenshot straight from the script:

Mark Watney took stock of his situation, and then he got to work. He did the math- and he got to come home.

We can do the same thing with our worries. We can ‘do the math.’

Overwhelmed at work?

I can look at my list of 12 projects I have to finish, and I can either panic and curl up in the fetal position under my desk (I’ve been tempted), or I can tackle head-on the most important item and completely ignore the rest.

There’s absolutely zero value in worrying about the 11 other projects, I’m one person; I can only do one at a time. Or I figure out how to pass them on to others, request more time, or if it’s a chronic issue – I can consider a new job. Being stressed out about it does nothing for me.

Concerned about world issues?

Picture yourself in your house, sitting at your computer. You’re sipping some tea, your cat purring by your leg. Then you open up your Twitter feed and the morning news. Suddenly your surroundings transform from a quiet and comfy home to a room filled with anxiety, anger, frustration and stress towards problems that are (what I’m assuming to be) out of your control.

But wait! You can choose what room you want to be in; the quiet room, or the one filled with anxiety. So if you do the math, you’ll see you have two choices. Either:

  1. Don’t pay attention to these problems outside your control (don’t read the news, delete your Twitter account)
  2. Pay attention and then take action

Focus that worry-energy on things you can have an impact on. The devastating war in Syria will happen whether or not you read about it. But you can sign a petition, attend a protest, or donate to a charity for Syrian refugees.

Anxiety about the past and future?

Eckhart Tolle in his book ‘The Power of Now’ talks about how it is literally insane to worry about the past and future because, well, they aren’t real. The ‘present’ often feels like just a tiny piece of salami sandwiched between two monstrous pieces of bread: the past and future. But the present is all there is, ever. It’s the whole sandwich.

That’s why expending energy into the past and future is a complete waste of energy. You’re throwing effort in to a black hole.

You should really just read the book, but if you want the five sentence book summary on what to do about this, here it goes.

First, spend as much time as you can in the present moment. Practice mindfulness or meditation to get your brain to hang out in the ‘now’ more often. Then whenever an issue or problem comes up, you ask the simple question: can I deal with the issue now?

Is the answer no? Then stop worrying about it.

Is it yes? Then deal with it, one step at a time.

Or approach it like a nerdy space engineer and do the math.

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