How do I stop worrying about my loved ones getting hurt?
May 13, 2015 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I can't stop envisioning scenarios in which people I care about get into horrific car/train/plane accidents or get sick and die. How do I accept my powerlessness to protect my loved ones 100% beyond the shadow of a doubt and just live with it?

I have never been a hypochondriac or a germaphobe or someone who fretted about the inevitability of her OWN death. I rarely go to the doctor, frequently eat dropped pretzels off the floor, and enjoy a diet full of preservatives and non-organic food. I'm not afraid of flying--I love air travel!

But... recently I've started worrying myself sick about things happening to people I care about. I've always had this tendency; when I was a kid, if my parents were even one minute late coming home to relieve the babysitter, I would start to freak out about them dying in a car accident or something. These days, the 24-hour Internet news cycle has definitely made my paranoia worse. I am single and don't have kids--I can only IMAGINE what a worrywart I'll be when I have a family of my own.

Sometimes I will hear about someone's relative dying unexpectedly after a heart attack or some freak accident, or being diagnosed with fast-acting cancer, and I will start to freak out about the possibility of this happening to someone I care about. I almost cannot imagine going on living if this happened to one of my loved ones.

Examples: I read about Sheryl Sandberg's husband's fatal fall from a treadmill and started envisioning all these situations where my parents or one of my siblings could suffer some totally unexpected injury or maybe get cancer all of a sudden, or be in a shopping mall when a gang shooting breaks out. This morning I awoke to news about the Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania and started worrying about my little brother since he often takes that train line. Meanwhile, I am dating someone who rides his bike without a helmet (he promised to start wearing one, at my insistence) and travels frequently for work (i.e. is out of my sight and in all these novel, uncontrolled situations all the time). He's also a few years older than I am and I worry about him running into health problems--though he's healthy right now, who knows what lies ahead?

How do I chill out? Even if I do everything right, something could happen to any of my loved ones at any moment. The examples I gave above were totally unpreventable... unless those people had just sat at home wearing full-body padding. And you can get cancer even if you never leave your apartment. I am very much a control freak and cannot relax knowing that these threats to my loved ones are totally out of my control.
posted by Guinevere to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I am very much a control freak

That's the part to work on. In all areas of your life. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook might be helpful and/or working with a therapist might be helpful. I actually found that working with an awesome yoga teacher was extremely helpful for me, so working on mindfulness, staying in the present, and letting go of the illusion of control through yoga or meditation might also help.
posted by jaguar at 10:25 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a (not uncommon) form of clinical anxiety (or something similar, like OCD). It is worth going to a doctor and discussing treatment options, including therapy and medication. For my anxious intrusive thoughts, medication was a godsend -- it didn't change anything about me, except suddenly I wasn't completely consumed with horrible anxious thoughts.
posted by brainmouse at 10:25 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to have this issue big time. Although it has not gone away entirely (I am the sort of person who is a chronic worrier, and while I've gotten better I don't think it has entirely gone away), my therapist gave me two things to think about that really improved things for me:

1. How is my worrying helping the situation? In some cases, it actually could be doing something good! For example, identifying that a loved one is engaging in a stupid/dangerous behavior like not wearing a bike helmet and getting them to change isn't entirely useless, and is probably a good thing (as long as it doesn't turn into endless nagging). However, in most cases the worrying is accomplishing nothing. Me sitting around crying about the possibility of my mother getting into a car accident is not helping her, or helping me, or doing anything the change the likelihood of her dying in a car accident. Ultimately, checking in when I get into a worry cycle for if there is a positive action I can take and then letting go of the rest has been very healthy for me. Because sometimes that worry really is connected to something you can be proactive about, like, "Hey, I saw this story on the news about carbon monoxide poisoning, and now I've made sure the batteries in our detector are changed!" But 9 times out of 10, I can identify that the worrying is not doing ANYONE any good (and in fact may be damaging my relationships), and reframing it that way helps me recognize the thought but move on.

2. If the horrible thing came to pass, is this how I would want to spend my time with my loved one? I remember clearly getting into a big 'argument' with my therapist where I was like "BUT MY WORRIES ARE NOT IRRATIONAL! My dad in particular has a chronic health condition that no one can seem to get him to take seriously, and there is a very real possibility that he will die prematurely of it. So since my worries are based in reality, I have a right to worry them!" And she responded to say, sure, of course you have the "right" to worry about these things, and they are genuinely stressful. But even if things do come to pass exactly as you fear, is this how you would want to spend the last time you would have with your father? Is this how you would want to remember him and your relationship? (He is currently doing fine, by the way!)

Anyway, not sure if these thigns will help you, but I figured I throw them out there since they have been helpful for me to both think about, journal about, and bring to mind at times when my anxiety starts to spiral out of control.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:30 AM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here's a similar question someone asked recently.

Here's what the Dalai Lama has to say on worrying:
If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. In other words, if there is a solution or a way out of the difficulty, you do not need to be overwhelmed by it. The appropriate action is to seek its solution. Then it is clearly more sensible to spend your energy focussing on the solution rather than worrying about the problem. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be for you.
posted by aniola at 10:36 AM on May 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

These are not rational fears and you're not going to reason yourself out of them in the middle of a panic attack. What does work is controlling the physical manifestations of your anxiety, e.g. hyperventilation, heart palpitations, nausea, etc. I'd start with breathing exercises, but medication is very effective at this. Another thing that works in the moment is dunking your face in a bowl/sink of cold water. This is a physiological phenomenon called the mammalian diving reflex and it instantly slows your heart rate.

You can't think straight when you're in a panic spiral, so your approach needs to be to interrupt it.
posted by desjardins at 10:42 AM on May 13, 2015

Did this recently get a lot worse? It sounds like it, from your question. I would actually suggest a checkup with your regular GP -- tell them about this, and also mention any other recent symptoms, even if they seem unrelated, and especially if they involve tremors, heart palpitations, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, etc. A sudden worsening of anxiety can be tied to a couple of thyroid conditions, and if you're a woman in your 20s or 30s, you are in the prime demographic to develop those.

If it isn't a thyroid condition, your GP may be able to suggest other possible courses of action that could help with your anxiety. It sounds very unpleasant to live with.
posted by pie ninja at 11:53 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can tell you, after several terrible experiences, that if a shock like this does come, it will likely be something that you didn't anticipate. We're not good at this kind of forecasting, generally - life is precarious, but you're very likely worrying yourself sick over scenarios that will never occur.

Also, you are stronger than you think you are, but you will never know that unless you're faced with a scenario that you have no choice but to live through. Don't anticipate what you would do or how you would feel under extreme stress, because you honestly can't know. Again, you're forecasting a future that would feel and play out very differently from the frightening abstractions in your head.

Most importantly, you cannot control anyone else, or the world. As a fellow control freak, I can tell you what you're attached to is a very flimsy *illusion* of control. Outside, the world goes on randomly and unpredictably, ALL THE TIME. What you're afraid of is actually happening right now. You are not in control, and never have been. And yet you're still alive and nothing terrible has happened. You can try to accept this, or you can live in constant fear of the illusion you've created.

The worst part about not accepting our lack of control is that all that fear absorbs time and energy you could be investing in living. If you do end up losing someone close to you, I can guarantee you that you'll regret not investing that time and emotional energy in them rather than in projecting about what might have happened to them.

Seconding getting some bloodwork done - I hope you get some relief from this.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:04 PM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I had a mini-panic attack earlier this year when I realized how powerless I was to prevent my loved ones from harm. That with all my money, smarts, connections, will, drive... I still could not save my partner if the situation were dire. I could find & pay for the best doctors but it still might not be enough.

I told my monk about this and he said it's actually very healthy to face the truth of our lack of control and if we can mindfully feel our fear, we are actually living, instead of the pretend living we do which is in most cases denial. Denial of reality, denial of death. He advised me to carefully allow myself to feel that terror and powerlessness*. He told me that if you can face this primordial fear and walk through it, there is peace and serenity on the other side. Now you can start really living, because you can love purely and act without fear. You can actually love your loved ones more deeply when you've walked through this ultimate fear.

So maybe you can turn this negative into a positive. Think: this fear is me on the cusp of facing reality, that we all exist in a delicate balance between life & death at every moment.

This is how I finally made peace with the fear, I see it as the gatekeeper to deeper wisdom, if I am brave enough to face it without resorting to older coping mechanisms (grasping for control, trying to logic out of it etc.). I don't think I've experienced it as deeply as my monk describes but from what I have so far, I really think he's on to something. At any rate it gives me enough faith to keep facing the fear in this way whenever it comes up. I tell myself: on the other side of this fear lies wisdom, and then I try to be brave enough to walk through.

* he did stress much much caution, and that you must use wisdom in facing this fear. If you spiral into anxiety, you serve no one and will only suffer, not grow. In which case, it is not wise to face this fear. If you can be mindful within your fear, if you can just feel it, that is actually the ticket out, and it's a very special learning experience when it happens.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:04 PM on May 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

I've experienced this in the past (still worry a little when e.g. parents fly, but much less so). The thing I used to do to comfort myself was look at the odds of any given horrible thing happening, and then remember the many, many times things haven't gone wrong (i.e., the normal course of events, luckily for us). News stories attend to unusual events, by definition.

Other than that, and the great advice above, try to enjoy the time you spend with your loved ones here and now.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:50 PM on May 13, 2015

I was able to get some free biofeedback sessions through work (learning to control your heart rate via your breathing) and it helped me to a surprising degree. I think basically just knowing I was doing something about my anxiety helped. Also, I'm a lot worse at night and I find that if I exercise and tire myself out a bit, I am less anxious and sleep better.
posted by karbonokapi at 4:39 PM on May 13, 2015

This is anxiety disorder. Counseling and medication can help. You CAN NOT rationalize your brain, especially not with your own brain. Exercise and meditation/yoga might help ease the panic, but like brainmouse says, medicine is magical.
posted by Brittanie at 8:51 PM on May 13, 2015

This is anxiety disorder. Counseling and medication can help. You CAN NOT rationalize your brain, especially not with your own brain. Exercise and meditation/yoga might help ease the panic, but like brainmouse says, medicine is magical.

This is an amateur diagnosis, and far from the lived experience of many people, myself included. Periods of elevated anxiety or difficulty with obsessive thoughts DO NOT mean you are chronically mentally ill, and do not mean you absolutely need to be medicated. Speak to a professional, but be wary of the many, many MeFites who are ready to paint counseling and drugs as a silver bullet for mental health issues.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:02 PM on May 14, 2015

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