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Is there another side to worrying?

Actor Ryan Reynolds has been quoted as saying that by understanding his anxiety he’s learned to see it as an ecosystem of awareness that he wouldn't otherwise have. With that in mind we explore a different side to worrying.

Worrying and anxiety play enormous roles in both our collective and individual lives, but looking at the data, the research and listening to the experiences of those around us, can there sometimes be a different way of thinking about it?

There's so much wrapped up in anxiety and worrying, and it can be a complicated space to explore. So in writing this, I don't seek to be definitive or even to define worry or anxiety, but to consider a few sides and perspectives that might perhaps be helpful from time to time. The process brings us back to one of the basic tenets of spa experiences, which is finding ways to bring ourselves back into the present moment through breathing, meditation and even spa treatments.

Getting out of your head and back into your body

Is worrying always a bad thing?

More than 500 years ago, the philosopher, Michel de Montaigne was credited with saying:

"My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened."

Galvanising that pithy quote with science, in 2017 a study by clinical professor of psychiatry, Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D, found that 85% of what we worry about never actually happens. Meanwhile, when things did happen, 79% found that either they could handle it better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning.

Anxiety is a big part of who we are, what we struggle with, how we handle everyday experiences, and it can be extremely detrimental to our health and our quality of life. However, it's not always the worry itself that is the issue, but how we perceive it.

Worry and anxiety can be a powerful driver for us as well - helping to motivate us, address issues early on and alert us to potential 'dangers'. It's when it becomes chronic and all consuming, stopping us from being motivated and instead keeping us frozen and debilitated, that it becomes a problem.

In fact, sometimes, it's the perception that anxiety is something that we need to get rid of rather than harness the power of, that can make it even harder to handle. For example, flipping that idea on its head, the actor, Ryan Reynolds, has been very open about his own anxiety. Having learned to understand it, he has been quoted as saying:

"My job benefits greatly," [...] "People who have anxiety are constantly thinking into the future. You're constantly, 'What if this happens? What if that happens?' You're always telling yourself stories. ... So anxiety creates that ecosystem of awareness that I wouldn't otherwise [have]."

He has also said that understanding his own anxiety helps him to be a more empathetic parent:

"When I see my kids experiencing some of that, which is probably genetic, I know how to address it in a way that is compassionate".

Reynolds' perception of his own experiences are not merely hypothetical either. Psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, Kate Sweeny, has written:

“Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile,” [...] “It has motivational benefits, and it acts as an emotional buffer.”

Meanwhile, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, goes as far as to say:

“Psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity for anxiety and ambiguity.”

I can probably attest to having been more motivated by fear and anxiety over the years than anything else, and I suspect I am not alone.

Read about why a spa break’s more than a luxury

Getting back into the now

The idea that worrying isn't always negative can sometimes be helpful, simply because it gives us licence to stop panicking, breathe for a moment (if we can) or take action (if there's one to take). Either way, it gives us a bit of control, a pathway towards a solution or permission to let go.

I think it also points to something else, which so many great philosophers and thinkers in the world talk about (and indeed the spa world talks a lot about), which is to bring ourselves back into the 'now'. As both Reynolds and Michel de Montaigne allude to, so much worrying is not about what is, but about what might be - it's in the future. Some of it will be rooted in reality - that's what gives it its bite - but often we've taken a story and run off into multiple scenarios that haven't happened yet and may never happen. It's something of a defence mechanism I think - preparing ourselves or looking for a way out. That's not necessarily bad, but it can be crippling.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, is extremely articulate on the subject. I was introduced to his book as a teenager and have dipped in and out of it over the years. It's very helpful. One of his much repeated quotes is:

"Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future, and not enough presence."

This is, at least part of meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and even one of the great joys of spa treatments - bringing you back into your body and the present moment. As a child, whenever I was extremely anxious, one of my father's methods for calming me down was to ask: "Are you ok right now?", and when I replied a hysterical "No!", he would stop me and make me look at my hands and my feet, feel the floor under my toes, look at the space around me, and say: "In this moment, just in this moment, are you ok?" After a minute or two I would inevitably realise that I was.

Equally, now, when I have panic attacks of any sort, I find that 'grounding' myself in something tangible is helpful. It's another way to be in the now - put bare feet on the grass, stroke the dog, lay on the floor - find something to touch that brings me back into the present. It seems so small, and it doesn’t necessarily solve whatever problem I think I am facing, but it does give me the headspace to think more clearly about it.

We are all different, and the things we are worried or anxious about vary enormously, from the deeply practical to the somewhat existential. There’s no one way to handle it, but if we can start by getting ourselves out of a panic state then we might just begin to have more power over our reaction.

Read about the healing power of touch

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