Worry and happiness are mutually exclusive. When we are worried, we can’t be happy, and when we are in a joyous mood, worries vanish. Worry and happiness are two sides of the same coin unless we can be happy independent of the world, people, and objects around us, a feat only few can master.
Happiness and worry are also not absolutes. There are moments in everyone’s lives when worry takes centre stage in the mind, and there are times when we feel an abundance of joy. Life becomes rewarding if we can tilt the balance towards joy and away from worry.
Worry is like dust that settles on a table that has not been used or cleaned in a while. The moment any worry enters our mind, it begins to settle on every thought that comes into our conscious perception. Worry weighs down our entire body-mind complex. The mind feels heavier, and the body seems more sluggish and less responsive. Before we know it, we may take ourselves on a downward spiral from which it becomes hard to escape.
Worry always exists as a relationship between us in the present and thoughts about the future. Without thoughts of the future, there is no worry. It isn’t practical or necessary to completely ignore the future to live a worry-free life. Instead, if we work on the hidden engine of all worries — fear — we can disarm thoughts that make us worry.
Worry and fear, although interrelated, are different in some respects. There is an immediacy to fear, which is felt more in the body than the mind. In comparison, worry is a longer-term, smouldering mental process.
Fear triggers the fight or flight response in us. We can feel changes coming on in our body from the release of adrenaline, such as a faster pulse rate, heightened awareness of our surroundings, and an instinctive need to duck and hide from the source of threat.
Sustaining such physiological responses to fear in the long run is not sustainable. The basis for fear is simple — the impending loss of something we hold dear. Enduring long periods of extreme fright is not sustainable. Once the immediate source of anxiety subsides, physiological processes gradually return to normal.
Worry does not trigger the same sudden physiological changes seen with fear. However, when the intensity of anxiety crosses a threshold, it can manifest all the features of a fight or flight response.
To overcome worry, we can adopt a three-step method.
First, give the worry immediacy by turning it into fear. To do this, mentally challenge yourself to imagine that whatever you are worried about will come to fruition in the next moment. Visualization of what might happen turns long-term worry into a short-term fear. For example, if you are concerned about losing your job, visualize the moment you are fired and how you may react to that news.
This fear is not new or unknown. It already exists within as a shadow in the form of worry. By visualizing what may happen, you are merely confronting the source of worry. It may be unpleasant to create this fear within, but tell yourself, “I am creating this fear from the worry I harbour. It’s ok because I am in charge.” This affirmation is empowering and will give you the strength to overcome that fear.
Second, once you visualize the fear, you must face it head-on. Imagine yourself standing behind a thick glass wall, and your fear is a vast wave cascading toward you. Stand firm with the knowledge that the glass wall will protect you and fear cannot reach you. This will help overcome the instinctive urge to run away from the fear because unless you face fear, you cannot overcome it.
Triggering such fear within may unleash successive waves. But if you watch it without avoiding or succumbing to it, it will diminish in intensity. Soon, the fear will completely subside. Since worry has turned into fear that you successfully confront, that worry cannot return. You have completed its life cycle by imagining the end point of that worry.
Third, remember that worry and happiness are two sides of the same coin. Once worry disappears through this three-step technique, don’t forget to seize the happiness that dawns. Holding onto that happiness may seem as challenging as getting rid of worry. But by converting worries into fear, confronting that fear, and completing the lifecycle of worry, we can restore happiness.