Sometimes subtle differences between two things can make a world of difference. Consider the difference between thinking about problems versus worrying about them. Sometimes we can’t seem to stop worrying about things that have gone wrong, are going badly, or might go wrong. Some might say, “You can’t change any of it, so don’t even worry about it.” This advice usually is of little consolation.

It’s true that worrying, ruminating, fretting and obsessing about problems are not productive activities; they don’t help us to feel any better and they certainly don’t change the facts or the circumstances. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in even thinking about our problems.

Perhaps the main difference between the two is the spirit or the energy of the experience. Worrying is a tense, uncomfortable, anxiety-ridden activity. It never feels good. It’s a certain cognitive activity, a way of thinking about things, that is blended with negative energy and expectations.

The downside of worrying

When worrying, we’re leaning toward expecting and assuming that things will not work out well. It’s as if we’re taking our thoughts and problems into a place where they are washed with a pessimistic and hopeless attitude, spirit and energy.

Worrying may be related to having a problem with control. The Serenity Prayer gives us two options, to accept the things we cannot change or to change the things we can. If we’re having difficulty embracing either of these two, we might choose a third option—to worry. We want to control the outcome, but we’re not making the necessary change and we’re also not accepting the matter as is.

Worrying sometimes takes the form of the “What if . . . ?” syndrome. We worry, “What if I hadn’t made that mistake?” or “What if things don’t work out?” The problem here is that we usually don’t answer the question. We leave the question open, floating and recycling, tormenting us endlessly. Instead, try answering the “what if” question. This will give it shape, form and definition so that it’s easier to visualize, manage, change or accept.

Think about problems in a relaxed way

Thinking about problems, on the other hand, is different as it can be a calmer, more peaceful and productive way to engage problems. We can reflect back on problems of the past, identify problems in the present and even anticipate problems in the future—all in a healthy way. We can learn lessons from things that have gone wrong. We can trouble shoot, consider options and possible outcomes, create solutions and make plans to achieve them.

Thinking about problems does not have to be a steely exercise devoid of all emotions. It’s only natural that when we think about our problems we feel the unpleasant emotions that go along with them. These feelings can add to the experience and do not have to turn it into unproductive worrying. To do this, we do need to learn simply how to ‘have’ our feelings. There is an art to allowing a feeling—naming it, experiencing it and articulating it—which can take time to learn.

It’s good to know that it is possible to cultivate an attitude, spirit and energy about our problems which is relaxed, even-tempered and optimistic, which then allows us to experience our feelings and work on solutions as well.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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