Worry is Wasted Energy

Sebene Selassie
March 19, 2019
A single knight sits atop a chessboard of toppled pieces

Much of my energy can be drained by fear and worry. I’m not talking about big, scary fears of harm or death -- I’m actually not an especially fearful person. Some might even think I am brave. As a young woman, I traveled in foreign countries on my own. I’ve changed jobs often and started multiple careers. I do long silent meditation retreats. I’ve faced cancer three times.

I mean the kind of restlessness and worry related to planning, achieving, solving, and fixing which dominates my thinking and really, dominates my being. The worry that I am never doing enough. The fear that I will be unproductive. So, I’d better use every moment of my day, even my meditation time, to keep planning it all out

Obviously, planning is not bad. I need to coordinate my schedule to make sure I have enough time to accomplish all the things I do in life. But I do not need to fret over and over about all my tasks and commitments. Continually worrying about what I’ll say (or what I’ll wear) is not going to make the meeting I have later that day go any better. Feeding the festering anxiety that I might fail to meet various work deadlines, will not make me more efficient in meeting those deadlines. In fact, I am less efficient when I do this. Worry is wasted energy.

Integral coach Chela Davison calls this the “pathology of productivity”: the underlying panic about all the things I have to do, sometimes a low murmur, sometimes a high screech.

There are three antidotes that I’ve found to be useful.

First is to notice even it’s happening. This is the most important step. It also requires developing more mindfulness about how it usually plays out. It’s easy to get swept up in its momentum, so you need to build awareness of how it shows up for you. I’ve noticed that when the pathology of productivity is happening for me, I get really speedy in both body and mind. For example, generally, if I’m not late, I am a slow walker. I like to take my time walking to the subway or when running errands. But if I’m in over-productivity mode, I really speed up. Or I might be moving through my morning routine really quickly, not even paying attention when I’m feeding my dog or making my breakfast. Right there is a signal — and usually, if I look, my fast physical pace correlates with racing thoughts: endless list-making in my head or looping through certain thoughts over and over again. So I’ve made it a point to notice when I’m walking or moving fast and then to check in with what’s happening for me mentally or emotionally. What am I thinking about? Am I feeling overwhelmed? Usually, I am holding some anxiety about what I need to accomplish that day or week. Sometimes, just noticing helps to lessen the worrying about all the things I have to get done.

After noticing, the second step is to build some temporary calm and compassion. When I pause and allow myself to reconnect to my body, my breath, or any sensations I am able to create some spaciousness around the worry. I believe you can never underestimate the power of a deep inhale and exhale. Try it right now. Breathe in deep through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Right there, there’s some space and ease created. If there’s planning that needs to be done, we can get back to it after a few deep breaths, it only takes seconds and our planning will be the better for it. Pausing and connecting to the body is about training and increasing our capacity to be with our present moment experiences in a more easeful way. While the mind can (and does) pull us into the past or future, the body is only ever in the present moment. That’s why the breath and body are used as primary objects of meditation in so many traditions. The body is the perfect place for cultivating some spaciousness and ease around the worry.

The third antidote is developing insight about what’s really going on. One thing I’ve noticed when I’ve looked at my worries about being unproductive is that I there’s some part of me that thinks I can only get things done if they’re motivated by fear. I really think the worry is helpful. If I didn’t worry, then I’d never get anything done. Is that true? Try dropping the worry and approach what needs to get done with ease or even joy, and see what happens. I’ve done that, and you know what? It’s so much more pleasant. Whether I worry about it or don’t worry about it, I still need to get all those things done. Why not have less negativity and anxiety along the way? Why attach the fear to it? I’ve asked that myself and I think I can attach worry to my productivity because I’ve simply gotten so used to it. I didn’t even realize there’s another way. Also, because that other way seems so paradoxical. Pausing and making space can make me more productive. It seems counter intuitive but it’s true.

Ironically, anxiety often blocks its own healing. Taking a few moments to pause and center ourselves may seem simple, but when we’re feeling anxious, pausing can seem passive, useless, un–productive. Meditation slows down my planning mind and I become more centered and focused, ready to drop the worry and take action. The antidote to doing more may be doing less.

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Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.

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