We all know that worrying is bad for us. Plenty of people have told us so. I did a quick search and came up with these mic drop quotes:
‘Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.’ Corrie ten Boom
‘Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.’ Erma Bombeck.
‘A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work.’ John Lubbock.
Jesus famously said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’
I’ve always found Jesus’ injunction not to worry, and his reassurance that God knows what we need in terms of food and drink and so on to be immensely comforting. ‘Don’t worry,’ I tell myself. ‘You’ll be fine. It’s better not to worry.’
So when I found myself waking up at 2 a.m. and being unable get back to sleep night after night, I thought I wasn’t worrying. I knew that worrying would be wrong and unnecessary and I was sure I wouldn’t be so silly.
No, what I was doing, for a couple of hours each night, was planning.
Planning is different.
Planning is being a responsible adult and making sure things don’t fall off the radar.
Planning is thinking through the day ahead and making sure you have figured out what you need so that you can remember when you wake up and can do something about it.
Are you a 2am ‘planner’? Or do you turn the light off and ‘plan’ in bed until you go to sleep?
I’ve got bad news for you. That is not planning. That is worrying.
My psych gave me an activity to do, which I’m sure I’ve shared before. She said that each morning, before 8 a.m. if possible, I should set aside time to worry. Yes, planned worry time.
In that time, I write down my worries. Everything that I can think of. I put them all down on paper. Then I take that paper and put it into a worry box. Safe.
I am a Christian, so I call that box, ‘God’s In-box’. I give the worries to him. They are no longer mine, and I know that he can take care of them better than I can. But even if you don’t have that joy, I am sure that this exercise will be helpful to you anyway. Because I’ve had two major epiphanies from the process of using a worry box.
A few weeks after I started the exercise, I dove into the box and pulled out some worry lists from the early days. I looked at all the things I had been worried about. I thought through the situations and saw how few of them were worthy of worry. How often things just turned out all right. How few of my imagined disaster scenarios actually came to pass.
The people I was worried about could look after themselves. They didn’t die, or lose their jobs, or fail their exams. And if they did have something go wrong for them, they usually dealt with it quite well.
The dinner guests came and we had great conversation and the food was delicious. And if there was a catering mishap, it was easily covered over.
The costs for the house maintenance were covered in good time and without us having to starve or go cold.
Things were just not as bad as I was prepared for them to be. I didn’t need to be quite so prepared and geared up for catastrophe as I thought I did. We were doing fine. I realised that I didn’t need to worry as much as I thought I did.
The second thing, and this led to the planning/worrying epiphany, was that when I tried to think back and remember what I had been worried about the night before, I realised that the things that seemed like real worries at 3 a.m. were ridiculous when I looked at them at 8 a.m. after I had drunk a cup of coffee.
I had wasted hours worrying about things that, once my brain was properly awake, I could see weren’t even plausible.
The fact is that the middle of the night is just not a good time for rational thought and planning. Even if I was planning, I was planning irrationally. It was much more worthwhile to save that planning time until the morning when I could write lists, check my calendar, even make phone calls or send messages if that was what was necessary.
I hadn’t been planning after all. I had been worrying.
Do you know which part of the brain works extra well at night? I haven’t read any scientific studies on this but I reckon it’s the imaginative side. The creative part. And you can use that imagination to plan disasters, envision major calendar clashes, and figure out scripts to arguments with your friends and loved ones (that scripting never works – the other party hasn’t read the script and they’ll get their part wrong) or you can use your imagination to make up stories and songs, things that you don’t need to remember until the next day but that will work with your brain, helping it to relax, until the stories become dreams.
At least, that’s what works for me. I now choose to think about the novel I’m writing. I tell myself the part of the story that I’m working on at present. For me, it’s a good use of my time. If I work out a plot hole or a new bit of dialogue, then good. But more often, most of the time, I will tell myself a story, and that story will become a dream, and before I know it, I’m asleep.
Tomorrow’s worries can wait until it’s worry time.
I wonder if others have the same planning/worry mixup that I had. Have you ever got the two confused? And how do you put yourself to sleep? Or is this never a problem for you and do you sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow?
It’s good to be back after my summer break. If you’d like to hear my podcast on this subject, head to ruthamos.com.au/podcast. If this could help someone you know, please feel free to share it (or the podcast) and feel free to drop me a line (and answer my questions) at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.