Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 19, 2017

“What, me worry?”

Worry seems to be a part of everyone’s life at times and it is never a welcome companion. Yet despite it being so common, we usually keep our worrying to ourselves. So I was a bit startled when worry was the focus of one of the speeches at a college graduation I attended this spring.

On May 6, husband Art and I were in Warrensburg, Missouri, where his grandson Josh received his bachelor’s degree. A freak accident a few years back had raised the possibility that he might not be able to complete high school, much less attend college.

Four days before his graduation, Josh had sent Art an e- mail with the comment, “Didn't see this one coming. Just reminds me how fortunate I am.” Attached was a picture of a certificate he received as the 2017 outstanding student in his area from the university’s foundation.

Prior to the injury, Josh’s goal was to become a lawyer. He had spent many hours on a successful debate team. But a golf outing with friends changed that. Standing a bit too close, his friend’s club struck Josh in the temple. When he awoke at the hospital, he didn’t recognize anyone in the family. Over time, much came back, but some things, such as much of his knowledge of math, had been erased. This was a situation that fostered worry. But unlike problem-solving, worrying is a process of dwelling on a bad or potentially bad situation without any reasonable likelihood of changing the outcome. Worrying wouldn’t help Josh, but taking courses to restore his lost math skills might.

While he was working on relearning what he had lost, he was offered a job tutoring students. He found it rewarding, and the experience changed his career choice to social work. Josh wouldn’t recommend a knock on the head as a way of discovering what a person really wants to do in life, but it worked for him.

Just knowing worry is unproductive does little to lesson its ability to consume us, but we can reduce its hold.

Jennifer Hermanson, who had been selected as the overall outstanding female graduate, spoke about how much of her life and energy had been consumed by worrying. At some point in her college career, she realized she couldn’t continue that way. For her, the 1948 Dale Carnegie book - “Stop Worrying and Start Living” - proved helpful. “The Power of Positive Thinking” by minister Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, published in 1952, also addresses this issue and is still popular today.

Many of the suggestions in books such as these involve consciously making the decision to suppress bothersome thoughts by deliberately bringing to mind positive ones. These ideas have been often dismissed as “feel-good” ones that have little of substance to offer. But evidence is steadily mounting that this approach is not nearly as far out as many had thought. Repeated experiments show that people who are not happy, but make a happy face, soon feel happier! According to sciencebasedmedicine.org, people given a painkiller who were told it would reduce their pain reported twice the reduction in discomfort as those people who were just given the drug without any explanation.

Imaging techniques can now map certain changes in the living brain. To some extent, we can actually see physical differences in the structure of the brain as it learns - especially from repetitive activity. (scientificamerican.com/article/watching-the-brain-learn/). Repetitive cycling of thoughts is a fundamental feature of worrying - the act of worrying promotes worry. Actively focusing on replacement thoughts encourages the mind to focus on them instead.

Art said a technique he has used for years when confronted with a situation that could have a downside is to ask himself if he could deal with an adverse outcome. He said the answer has always been “yes.” That seems to free him of the worry, knowing that should the worst case happen, he can just implement his plan for that worst case.

This is not to say that problems such as depression can just be “thought away.” But milder dark thoughts can be converted into light ones by actively replacing thoughts of the former with thoughts of the latter.

Studies show women suffer from worry to a greater degree than men. While I doubt Hermanson had compared notes with the fellow chosen as the outstanding male undergraduate, his comments were a textbook-like example of a different approach to life. Robert Hilvert said after being told he would be speaking, he treated it much like any other college assignment: he poured himself some coffee, sat down and wrote a speech - around midnight the night before.

Another strategy that combats worry is to be proactive - to engage with potential problems by taking the initiative rather than letting events push us along.

Josh is an example of how this can be done. As April was winding down, Art had expected an e-mail from him with graduation details and perhaps a “throw-in” comment about looking for a job. Instead, Josh mentioned three graduate programs he had applied to, said he had been accepted in all three, and what his final selection was. And a job? He had already looked into several that would allow him to work and go to school.

The day after graduation, I thought about the speeches and eventually my ruminating drifted to my brother Dave. He was a fan of “MAD” magazine that often featured a cartoon of a red-headed, age-ambiguous character named Alfred E Neuman. Neuman was often drawn wearing rather nice clothing. But the half-closed eyes, protruding ears and gap-toothed grin always made me smile. The image was that of someone who never fretted about anything and so it was fitting that he was often accompanied by the phrase, “What, me worry?” As simplistic as it may sound, now there is some science to the notion that one of the secrets to worrying less and enjoying life more is to just actively choose to do so.

Left: Art, Art's grandson Josh and Art's daughter Karen after the graduation ceremony in Warrensburg, Missouri on May 6; right: Alfred E. Neuman drawing from comicvine.gamespot.com.

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