When my family and I lived in New Zealand 17 years ago there was an acclaimed film about a dysfunctional Maori family called Once There Were Warriors. An excellent movie, although very hard going, it had, as a subtext, the loss of mana experienced by Maori as they put aside their warrior status. Perhaps a parallel with what happens to some of us in retirement. If anyone has read the chapters I’ve published so far in my blog www.thesummerhouseyears.com about our 16 months away (entitled 4 or 5 go to New Zealand), you will realise I had good cause to worry about what was happening to us as a family. Consequently, we used the film title as a mantra for us in that country, it became – Once There Were Worriers – this was how Mrs Summerhouse and I defined ourselves. So it was then and has been since in different ways. I admit, I do tend to worry about things.
Now I am retired I have a whole different set of things to worry about – have we got enough money? What should I do with this period of my life? What shall we have for breakfast now we don’t have to rush off to work? What kind of clothes does a retired person wear? And so on. I wouldn’t say I was worrying more, just differently. Although maybe, on reflection, I am worrying more in the sense that I now have more time to worry. When I was working there simply wasn’t the time to agonise, I had to get up and get off to work and do my job, become engrossed in other peoples’ problems, not my own. Now it’s a bit different.
Are worry, anxiety, stress, inevitable in our modern world? Are these ‘feelings’ even more prevalent when we retire? Are they all the same thing or different versions of the same thing or totally different things? And why does it even matter? All I can say is that it may matter because I’m going to suggest, in the second half of this blog, that understanding the cause/s of your ‘emotional condition’ will almost certainly help you deal with it. Assuming that is that you are prone to these states. In my view they come in the above order of seriousness. Worry, an everyday kind of emotion. Anxiety, a rather more pronounced and prolonged version and somewhat more debilitating. Stress, the point where your emotions are potentially doing you some serious harm. You may not agree with my classification but that’s the way I choose to see it.
And the reason I think the distinction is useful is in order to offer the suggestion that it’s better to deal with these emotions (I’ll use this term as short hand) at the lowest possible level before they escalate and before their on-going nature does serious physical damage – like having a heart attack or similar. Also in the ’why this classification?’ thinking, it is easier to make adjustments when they entail small changes and, therefore, are more achievable rather than when our emotional state has become more serious, more destructive, engrained and at a time when we may lack the strength to make these now bigger changes.
In addition, if you feel you’ve by-passed the worry stage and gone straight to stress, it still makes sense to think minimalistically about this area. It’s another one of those ’watch your language’ areas. Try and keep the drama of your descriptions to the lowest possible level. Try to avoid using sweeping negative labels about yourself. If you describe yourself as a worrier rather than ‘a person with worries’ it makes your situation seem more intractable and, consequently, your worries harder to deal with. Also you’ll note that we tried to deal with our worries in New Zealand by including a little humour in the equation.
So what to do? At the risk of repetition, worry happens most often in circumstances we don’t understand or do understand but feel we can’t control. So overall the process is one of retaking control from those worries that are blighting our lives. ‘Free floating anxiety’, as it is sometimes called, is probably the most pernicious of conditions for the simple reason that it is unclear as to what the cause/s is and if you don’t know why it’s happening it’s impossible to take action to deal with the problem. By the way if you have another person with whom you can carry out the exercise below then this may (not necessarily but this is another blog topic) be helpful. So I suggest the following steps:
First, use a little common sense. Ghandi said – they can’t take your dignity if you don’t give it to them. In a worry context this might be reframed as – it’s not a worry if you don’t let it be. My mother wears her worry as a badge of pride. I’ve always been a worrier, she says fiercely in the same way that another person might say I’ve always been a fighter. What she means is that this gives her licence to complain. I, on the other hand, am not proud of my worrying. I regard it as a sign of weakness. Yet, perversely my mother’s attitude to her worrying offers a way forward in the world of worry. Why worry is some people’s mantra and, like Ghandi, this is not a bad attitude. However, assuming you’re a bit like me and do worry, let’s look at some further possibilities. So to the rest of my recommendations list.
- The first thing, as I’ve said elsewhere in these blog pages, is to get all the rubbish out of your head and on to paper. This is a form of writing as therapy. This can be simply a blank sheet as big as you like, depending on how many worries you think you have, or alternatively, notebook, a diary or journal. The latter may be better if you intend to consult your list at a later point. Write down everything you can think of. You can evaluate at a later stage whether what you’ve written really is a genuine worry. Get it all out there, splurge it. You will feel better just for this simple act alone.
- Look at what you’ve written and then start the process of deciding whether each worry has an action (don’t think at this point what the action might be but at a later stage you will need to do some serious thinking about the most appropriate action to take) or simply must be tolerated. In a stress context somebody said – what cannot be cured must be endured. Work out which of your worries come into this category. Colour code if you like each area as action / no action. Bear in mind also that, in the ‘take action’ areas, you don’t have to come up with the complete answer to remediate the problem, a step in the right direction is often sufficient to alleviate your worry level.
- Look at those areas you have marked ‘no action’ and do some of the following – regard these as everyday worries, not, notice, anxieties or stressors. The language you use to describe to yourself your ‘problems’ is surprisingly important. When you think of these areas of your life in terms like anxiety or stress, you are unwittingly adding to your mental burden. They’re just worries.
- Remind yourself that nobody has a life free of worry. This is the ying and the yang of life. The ‘bad’ things provide the balance to the ‘good’ things. Life would be boring without this balance. And you wouldn’t appreciate the good stuff. In a way you might even welcome the minor worries as providing that all important life balance.
- Also take a look at your list for any little worries you’ve recorded. We all have them, for me it’s that list of DIY jobs I promised myself I would tackle when I retired. They seem small and they are, but rolled together, they can be destructive to a worrier. They chip away at our self-esteem. Add to any feelings of being worthless. So make a note or colour code these little worries and, as with all your ‘take action’ areas, write them into a timetable over the coming weeks / months. These are probably what Alan Lakein called in his book How to get control of your time and your life, the equivalent of his ‘Cs to dos’ in his case, the relatively unimportant worries in this case, but whereas he regarded doing or taking care of the Cs as a waste of valuable time, from a worry / self-esteem perspective ticking off some / all of these tasks can really help reduce your worry quotient.
- There may be another category of what I would call ‘live and let live’, areas you’ve reached an accommodation with, like, as an example, being over-weight. You’d quite like to be a bit slimmer but you also like food and drink and so you make your peace with this area of your life. I don’t want to make these categories too complex because the strategy here is naming (even labelling) your area of worry so that you can more easily take control of it. Incidentally, as I shall say in a moment, your strategies do not last for ever (and, remember, in the darkest times, nor do your worries) which means you have to revisit and revise your tactics. Tactics is a good word because it gives the message to yourself of being in control. It’s just a word, but words are vital in the area of mental health generally and worry specifically.
So, in summary then, there are two main ’dealing with worries’ categories – action / no action. In the action category you need a timetable of some sort and, as I suggested earlier, a plan as to how you will actually address each problem area. You may wish to sub-divide this area into big ‘to dos’ and small ‘to dos’. But they all need some kind of action. I’ll write more about action plans in general and goal-setting in particular, at a later date.
In the no action category make sure you have the right mental set for ‘dealing with’ these worries. This is the ‘shit happens’ part of life, everybody has some version of these worries. Take comfort from this if nothing else. Finally, when you look at your list, you may see ‘worries’ that aren’t actually much of a worry at all or even somebody else’s worry altogether. Dump these from your list!! Scribble them out.
In a later blog I may write about how I, as a self-confessed worrier and an ex-psychologist, try to deal with my actual, real-life worries in the way I’ve described here. But that’s enough for now. Good luck.