The nature of worry and anxiety is to undermine the present, whether the worry expresses itself authentically or as anger, frustration, or any of the other emotions that are a person’s “go-to” response. We’re seeing many people’s “go-to” responses now in the face of a very real pandemic, with very real consequences short and long term. Some people are expressing this worry in creative outpouring, in active attempts to connect across “social distancing”, or in much more frequent contact with loved ones. Some are re-rooting into meditation and exercise practices, or shedding behaviors and the “needs” of pre-pandemic daily life (and finding that it’s OK after all). Some are lashing out at fellow citizens and neighbors, re-trenching their prejudices, fueled by bigotry and the fetishization of the science-denying movement. All of these things were part of our daily lives before the pandemic, just muted by our busyness and the swift rolling on of the days. What’s new is COVID-19 and the profound reshaping of how we engage with each other, with ourselves, and with worry. Is the world ending? No. Should we care about exposure and protect the vulnerable? Of course. Should we worry? Why? Can we choose not to worry, or at least not to fixate on a concern? Is this pile of boulders below about to crash down on me? Probably not. Did I *worry* about slipping and falling before I climbed and while I climbed it? Nope. But I did choose where to grab and step carefully and I chose my path deliberately (and made a change when a raccoon let me know where its nest was). It became a glorious and fun climb to a spectacular view of the Massachusetts ocean side.
Stoicism understood worry as an irrational attempt to avoid a possible future – this fixation of the mind on the possible (not the probable or the inevitable) is driven by an inability to properly deal with or let go of something we create in our imagination, something that has not even happened. “What is real has its own proper boundaries, but uncertain things come under the power of our guesses and out-of-control fears…. Even misfortune is capricious; perhaps it will happen, perhaps not. In the meantime it is NOT happening. So expect something better.” (Seneca, Ep. 13, my trans). I think what Seneca means here is that a present moment, a current experience, will naturally end, but when we engage our minds in worrying about uncertain outcomes, about possibilities, these worries do not have a natural end. We perpetuate them in our minds. Focusing on now, expecting a better outcome while remaining aware and reasonable about contingencies … this is what will lead us to a better relationship with our worrying.
A highly cited article from 2017 linked here showed a significant negative correlation between worry & rumination (and a positive correlation between emotional intelligence) and certain cognitive abilities (planning, attention, response inhibition, problem solving and cognitive flexibility). What the Stoics and most contemplative traditions have asserted, and what EI coaching can help us understand, is that dwelling negatively in the “possible future” disrupts our present effectiveness. What this study shows is that worry and rumination disrupt the specific cognitive abilities that make us effective, and that emotional intelligence (being deliberately aware of and evaluating our emotions) can mediate between worry and reality. People with high emotional intelligence still worry, get anxious, are afraid for their vulnerable loved ones … emotional intelligence is not a cure for the human condition. People with high emotional intelligence do not dwell in those fears, however… they wash their hands, they check in on their friends, they engage with the world that is. How is worry impacting your ability to plan, pay attention, respond non-reactively, solve problems, and be flexible? Do you need help working with your worry?
I shot this picture at the top of this post at the end of what was predicted to be a terrible ice storm last fall. I was responsible, did what I should in case power fails. But look at what happened too. And now it is spring.