When I asked, "Do you ever worry?" almost everyone I queried responded affirmatively. Sometimes the response was accompanied by a slightly anxious sigh. Some respondents suggested they did "good worrying" and justified it as a healthful, problem-focused coping style.
Here's a direct quote from one 87-year-old: "Worry can be useful — helps us avoid danger and be more vigilant in new situations."
I know that for some of us, anxiety and worry is not a good thing at all — it's a relentless daily obsession that often becomes a serious mental health challenge. If you or someone you love is in the latter category, what I am about to say may be less helpful to you than a discussion with your health care provider or information from the best Web resources, perhaps starting with the National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov).
Today, I'm choosing (make that "valiantly trying") to put a new face on this topic. Research has shown a surprising amount of worry and anxiety in the general population. Our "worry content" varies as a function of age, gender, marital status and educational attainment.
This issue has been well-studied. Believe it or not, there's research to support that most of us (65 percent) do our worrying at home and primarily in the bedroom. That brings all sorts of things to mind, but it's typically an "I just can't fall asleep" issue — often tied to over-processing an event or an action taken (or not taken). It occurs between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. And, yes, researchers can be that specific.
It's the kind of worry that hinders restorative rest and can lead to sleep deprivation, which you then start worrying about, too. Not good.
All that said, let's figure this out and take a different angle on it. Cornell University professor Karl A. Pillimer, writing in The Huffington Post, discussed his in-depth study of more than 1,000 elders as part of The Legacy Project (http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu).
Pillimer asked, "What do you regret most as you look back on your life?" He anticipated people would say things such as, "an affair, a shadowy business deal, a particular addiction." What people told him was, "I wish I hadn't spent so much of my life worrying."
Many said they wanted a "single do-over" as they concluded, "Worry is a tremendous waste of precious and limited lifetime" and "an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment."
One 70-something woman's comment was particularly powerful for me — she said "worry poisons the present moment." I hope her comment will redirect some of your nighttime tendencies and give you a little assistance in falling asleep tonight.
It's not that simple, I know, but learning that over-worry is such a deep regret for so many older adults has helped me reconsider its potential to affect my life in ways I don't prefer — and do something about it. Beyond gaining a refreshed understanding of the less-than-positive influence of anxiety and worry and its potential "legacy," there are tangible things any of us can do to redirect our tendency to worry.
For example, I am helped by prompting myself to be "in the moment" and to focus on the short-term.
I am aided by the reminder, "Instead of worrying, prepare."
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.