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Into the Haunted House: The Pill is a Process, Part 2

Last week, I threw out a question that you either chose or chose not to take seriously: Is it possible to become the kind of person who no longer worries about their life?


I’m guessing that, if you’re reading this, you are at least curious enough to entertain the possibility of a “yes” to that question. So, let's dive in a little deeper. (But if you missed that post, check it out here...)


First, what is worry?


If we want to eliminate anything from our lives, we first must understand what it is and how it works. Presupposed in the famous cliché, “You will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is a basic understanding about what a fly is, how it operates, and what it wants. Only once we understand these things (particularly that flies are attracted to honey) can we develop a way forward on how to solve our “fly problem.”



So, if we want to have a chance at starving worry of its “essential nutrients” and getting rid of it forever, we must first understand what worry is, how it operates, and what it thrives on.


Instead of giving you the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “worry,” (I’m sure you can look that up later if you’re interested), I’m going to give you a simple snapshot of how I’ve come to understand worry.


THE HAUNTED HOUSE


At the moment of this being written, we are right in the middle of what our culture now calls “Spooky Season.” Halloween is upon us. The fake cobwebs have been put up. The candy is selling out. And the costumes are being created. It’s a holiday centered around things that scare us (but mostly in a fun way).


But if you’re a young kid, then not everything that’s meant for fun will be taken by you as such. Certain elements around Halloween might be a little too intense for you (heck, even some adults might find them too terrifying).


For me, one of those elements was The Haunted House.


How do you feel about haunted houses? Some people love them; others wouldn’t be caught in the same zip code as one.



I have grown to love haunted houses (mostly because I admire the set designs), but I still have to admit that the concept will never quite make sense to me: we pay money to go into a frightening house, be put on-edge and scared out of our wits 10 to 11 times? Shouldn’t they pay us for that?


And I’ll never forget the first time I finally agreed to go through a “legit” Haunted House .


I was 8 years old, and this haunted house had to be intended for 13 and up.


Great start.


Now, the real way that a haunted house gets you is not in the 90 seconds that you spend in the house itself, but in all the anticipation, the “build-up,” leading up to those 90 seconds. The anxiety does most of its work before you even get in the house itself. I was anxious when we got in the car. I was anxious driving down there. I was anxious in the long line (which felt even longer given my anxiety).


And I’m sure my dad, as the initiator of this activity, spent the entire drive trying to reassure me repeatedly that everything would be fine.


But in my eyes, it was not fine.


I was on edge all the way down the road, through the line, and right up to the entrance of the haunted house.


Now, it’s important to remember that I was 8 years old. Which means I was quite irrational and had no sense of what was really going on. The “façade” of it all never entered my mind.


The moment we got into the Haunted House, it was as if all my worst fears came to life. Chainsaws were buzzing loudly in my ear. Fake pigs were hanging from the ceilings and swinging into me. Zombies popping out with the intention of making me “one of them.”


I’ll give my dad the benefit of the doubt. I’m not sure that even he was fully prepared for what he got us into. His face behind me was probably thinking, “This experience is going to require therapy for my son when he’s older. Way to go, Jeff.”


And to this day, I still remember the overall sense that overwhelmed my body and mind as I stood in the middle of that haunted house: I really don’t feel safe.


Now, I understand that this was all “play,” and that so many around the world have experienced real threats of danger far beyond my comprehension. But to an 8-year-old kid in a haunted house, this was as real as it gets. So from my perspective, my safety was truly in jeopardy.


And is there a more perfect picture of worry?


WORRY AS A LACK OF SAFETY


Worry (as a noun) is an idea implanted into my mind that I am not safe, and all is not well.

To worry (as a verb) means to dwell on that idea for long periods of time, and even to entertain it as possibly true.

When we worry, we develop a chronic, pervasive sense that our well-being is in danger.

Now, I use the word chronic because there are times when the sense of potential danger is a good thing. If I’m walking through the forest, and I sense a large predator creeping around the corner, then I had better have some unconscious, internal signal alerting me of that impending threat so that I can quickly propel my adrenaline-filled body out of harm’s way.


But that’s not the same as worry.


Worry, by nature, is a chronic thing. Worry is like being in a slow, never-ending haunted house.


WORRY HAS LIMITS


And yet, unlike a haunted house, Worry is usually not “in our face” the way a zombie or a chainsaw is. In fact, Worry can’t exist outside of us at all. It can only live and grow inside our minds. And once our Worry has been incubated by our minds long enough, it then manifests itself through our bodies. This is why it’s very hard for some people to hide the fact that they’re worried about something. It comes out in their “body language.” Maybe they’re fidgety. Maybe they pace back and forth. Maybe it’s clear that they are distracted when you’re trying to have a conversation with them. They may try to reassure you that they’re fine, but their body doesn’t lie as well as they do.


So this fact actually offers us a glimmer of hope: our body is where our worry stops. In the same way that a human being, unaided, cannot survive once it leaves Earth’s atmosphere, neither will Worry last long once it exits our bodies.


You may ask, “If Worry can still thrive so long as it stays in my body, then why is this a ‘glimmer of hope?’” Because this means that, if Worry begins and ends in our mind and body, then we might have a say in how to handle it.


The power that Worry has over us is not found in what happens to us, but in what might happen to us.

Nothing in that haunted house could actually harm my body, but its real influence was the work it did on my mind, through its images and ideas. The infinite possibilities of harm befalling us that flit to and fro in our minds...those are the nutrients that Worry needs in order to thrive.


Now, this might seem counterintuitive, but what would it look like to, instead of trying to avoid and ignore those worrisome thoughts, you engaged them in a different way?


OUR WORRY AS AN EXERCISE PARTNER


I once talked with a wise mentor about my fear of flying. And here’s how the conversation went:


“What are you worried about?”


“I’m worried about my upcoming flight. I’m an anxious flyer”


“Ok, so what about flying causes you to be anxious?”


“What if the plane hits severe turbulence?”


“Ok What if it does? Then what?”


“Well, then we would be rocking around and bumping into each other.”


“Ok, And then what?”


“Well, then people might start screaming and crying, which would make me even more anxious”


“Ok, And then what?”


“Um….Well then, the plane might experience engine failure or something”

“Ok…And then what?”


“Well, then the plane might lose power altogether, nosedive and plummet into a mountain!”


“Ok…And then what?”


“Well….then I would probably die!”


“Ok, so at least we’ve found the source of your worry: the fear of death.”


Do you see the point of the exercise that my friend took me through? Instead of avoiding all the worrisome possibilities in my thoughts, she invited me to think of the worst possibility imaginable and then intentionally follow a line of reasoning (a sequence of events) to reveal what I was truly worried about: the possibility of dying.


Now, did this completely erase my fear of flying? No. Mostly because this sequence, as I laid it out here, was not quite complete (more on that next time). Nonetheless, this exercise somehow helped me gain back a small sense of control over my worry by “calling it out.” I took it from inside my mind, brought it out of my body through my words and, quite mysteriously, rendered it less powerful once exposed.

If you want to experience this for yourself, then try out this little exercise using what you’re currently worried about this week. Imagine a conversation partner responding every time with “Ok, and then what?” and see where that sequence takes you. Write it out if that helps. You might be surprised how you feel afterword.


But always know, as a general rule, that you will usually get more clarity with your worry by thinking on it more (and deeper) than by thinking on it less. In this case, contrary to popular belief, over-thinking can actually be a good thing.


I’m going to stop us here for today.


That’s right. We’re going to sit right in the middle of the haunted house for a bit, with no current ability to see the “Exit” sign.


But I hope this doesn’t leave you feeling hopeless. In fact, let’s take a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made so far:


We now have a better understanding of what worry is, how it functions, how limited it is in power and scope, and how to think differently about it. We have gained a little knowledge of the “fly,” and can now seek out the “honey.”


So I invite you to spend this week thinking about what we’ve discussed. Think about your worry and how it relates to your safety. Think about your worry having limits and not being able to survive outside of your body. It may not feel like it, but this is actually the first step of the process, the antidote, that we talked about last time. And we now have the means to develop a way forward, out of this proverbial ghostly shack.


And next week, we will do just that. We will meet someone else in our “Haunted House” who offers us what we, deep in our worry, have been desperately thirsting for: Joy.


Until next time, friends.


Be Well.


-Andrew


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