Today, I’d like to discuss one of my favorite leisure pursuits — Worrying.
Emma Morano and the Redwoods
Pop quiz: Who is Emma Morano and what’s her claim to fame? No googling allowed!
b. Sports person
c. Political leader
e. All of the above
f. None of the above
If you answered (f) you are right; (was it ‘f’ for fluke?)! Emma Morana, who died recently in 2017, was the last verified living person to have been born in the 1800s. Allow that to sink in for a moment. There is no human born prior to 1900, walking around the face of the earth today.
If you look at Emma Morano’s Wiki page, you’ll find very few documented facts about her and her life. Not much detail there. She credited her longevity to her diet, being single and childless. Hmmm. Let’s just say she wasn’t the only one saying having a spouse and children ages you.
Emma Morano broke records by living to 117. In comparison, some of the Redwood trees at the Redwoods State Park in California I had visited recently are estimated to be about 2000 years old. I want you to remember these two numbers — 117 and 2000.
Your great grandmother
Translated in plain speak, human lifespan is trivial compared to other objects in nature. And yet, we go about living our lives like we’re going to be here forever.
If you think I’m over reacting, here’s another mental exercise. Reflect for a moment and see if you can name your maternal grandmother. Most of us can. How about your great grandmother? Struggling? Now, how about describing with any level of detail, just one day of that person’s life — what she did, how she dressed, what she ate, what her day was like, what her dreams were etc. Unless she was some sort of revolutionary of her age, we just won’t know. We never will.
If you can’t read between the lines, I’m here with some breaking news for you. Stop stressing about every little thing and stop taking yourself so damn seriously. Most of the things you worry about won’t matter. Not just in the long term but within our own lifetimes, or even just a few years from now.
Uncertainty and Worry
Primarily, worry is a result of uncertainty. You worry because you’re not sure you’ll make it in time for your flight. You worry that you may mess up an important work presentation. Or worry about being a poor parent. The list is endless.
Worrying allows your brain to constantly play the what-if guessing game in your head. And, if, by any chance, you’re prone to Analysis Paralysis, then worry is like a bull in a China shop. It can bulldoze your brain into conjuring up such far-fetched scenarios that can make a Stephen King plot seem lame in comparison.
Process v Outcome
Worry is always related to the outcome rather than the process. We all have some degree of control over the process but, very little over outcomes. We all know this. Yet, we vehemently refuse to believe in it.
Worry works on a feedback loop. For instance, if you’re worried about missing your flight, you can take steps to ensure you leave early enough to get to the airport on time. So, instead of focusing on the process i.e. clearing up your schedule and building a time buffer to get to the airport, you choose to worry about the outcome.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can plan all you want to get to the airport on time and do your best, but may be blindsided by a protest rally on the way to the airport. Tough luck! Now you tell yourself why you were justified by worrying about being on time. At least now, it didn’t come as a surprise to you when you missed your flight.
Doing something v nothing
Our worries come from our innate desire to DO SOMETHING. Doing nothing is hard. Really.
Mark Twain famously said, ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened’.
Truer words have not been spoken. Just think back to how many things you worried about and how many of them came to fruition. Hardly any, right? And that, in a crux, is one of the key reasons we LIKE to worry.
Every time we worry about something and the outcome turns out to be better than our worst-case scenario, we believe that it’s the WORRYING that made it so. The act of worrying gives our controlling natures SOMETHING to do. So, a feedback loop gets set in motion.
Worrying keep your brain busy. But your brain now believes that just because you worried, you ended up with a good result. Far out!
In the process of worrying, however, you just lost precious moments of your life that could have been better spent. This is why we need to stop worrying and start living.
Motion pictures in our mind
Imagine this. You eat a salad for lunch before heading off to your afternoon work meeting. A couple of hours later, as you pass a mirror, you notice that you have lovely green spinach stuck between your teeth. (True story)! Then you start to worry about who was at the meeting. How your boss is going to notice your shoddiness and not promote you. And how that means you’ll be stuck in the ghetto you are in with your awful roommate. And how one day, a gang nearby is going to kill you!
Meanwhile, the boss you’re worried about has his own story. He walked into the meeting room with toilet paper stuck to his shoe and hadn’t noticed it until he completed his long walk down the corridor past rows of cubicles. He’s contemplating an even stranger scenario in his head. At the moment, he’d prefer an alien abduction to meeting his colleagues’ eyes.
Bottomline -both you and your boss have spent hours each focused on worrying about something that the object of worry is probably not even aware of. And in the process, that’s two more people out of contention in beating Emma Morano’s record.
While in the worried state, here’s what you ACTUALLY do to your body. Your brain does not distinguish your imagined threat from an Actual threat. So, it activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) aka fight-or-flight response.
The body pumps out stress hormones — adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. These chemicals increase your heart rate and blood pressure, pushing blood to key organs such as the heart and lungs, away from non-essential organs such as digestive systems. That’s why you feel sick to your stomach. A whole lot of glucose is pumped into the blood to provide the body “energy” to deal with the impending threat. You sweat more to keep you cool so you can run.
After the perceived threat is gone, the brain starts to calm down by activating the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), otherwise known as the “rest and digest” system by restoring balance.
Constantly activating the SNS spells a whole lot of trouble for your body. It’s what we refer to as “chronic stress”. Over time, this results in damaged blood vessels and arteries leading to increased risk of heart attacks. Hunger suppression and insulin intolerance occur leading to obesity and other related problems. In short, not something we should have a lot of “sympathy” for.
Beating Emma Morano’s record may not be your life’s goal. But living healthily and happily, in the short time we’re here should certainly be. Time to stop worrying and start living.
Next time you decide to start worrying about something, I’d like you to put it to what I refer to as my 5- year test.
The 5-year test: Ask yourself just one question. Will this matter to me 5 years from today? The Eeyore in me chooses 5 years, but if you’re a budding optimist, you can choose a much lower timeframe. I can bet you most things you worry about today won’t matter 5 years from today. Mismatched paint colors, or the fact that you served overcooked mush at your last dinner party, won’t stand up to the test.
A vast majority of worries will fall into this category. It’s best if you acknowledge that you messed up and move on quickly. If you insist on worrying because it makes you feel better, then set a timer, worry for 5 minutes and be done. Because, 117 v 2000.
Now, let’s just say, since you’re a super creative sort, you do come up with scenarios where the outcome may actually matter 5 years from now. I only have one piece of advice in that case.
Do all that you can do as part of the process, but worry not about the outcome. I’m not giving up my chance to sound all profound and intelligent. So, I quote from the Gita. 2:47, “Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana” You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions.
Stop worrying and Start living
If you can read this, you are likely more a la-Emma Morano than a Giant Sequoia. Wonderful, while that is, it comes with a much shorter use-by date. Make the most of it. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Live a little! Stop worrying and start living!
Or to quote Bobby McFerrin:
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) be happy