Are your problems worth worrying about?

I read somewhere recently that, when you’re worried about something in life, you should ask yourself;

Will this problem be something that I’ll be worrying about in 5 years’ time?” 

If the answer is ‘no’, then you should spend no longer than 5 minutes worrying about it and move on.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Personally, most of the shit I worry about day to day will (hopefully) have no impact on my life in 5 years’ time. So, what are we all worrying about then?

Well, in reality, it’s not that easy. When we get caught up in stress and anxiety, we feel like there’s no way out. Sometimes we even feel that our life will end. It could be anything from a fight with a partner, family problems or a conflict at work. Events we worry about are things that you’ll probably forget ever happened in 5 years’ time but you still can’t help but dwell on it.

At that moment, that precise time of sheer fight or flight adrenaline pulsing through you, with all the associated sensations of anger, hurt and betrayal… with all of that, I guarantee that you couldn’t give a shit whether it will matter in 5 years’ time or not. You’re angry, you’re pissed off, you’re fed-up. At that moment, everything’s fucked, and because of it, your life feels like a disaster.

So, what happened to our ‘5 year / 5 minute’ rule?

Truth be known… emotions are powerful and scary.

What the 5-minute rule is getting us to do is to look at the bigger picture and by doing this, acknowledging that most of the suffering we experience is insignificant. This view suggests that we should let it go.

But we can’t. You see, we often get caught in what I call ‘false worlds’.

False worlds are situations we find ourselves in where we think our consequences are dire. Circumstances where; due to the events, context, people and situations at any given moment, we seem unable to see beyond our temporary situation. We can’t see past our current predicament and into the future. While we’re in that world, it is indeed dire and problematic because we’re operating within the confines of our temporary reality at the time. When this happens, we tend to exclude all other information about how we know life and the world to be and instead, we allow our primal fears and emotion to take control of us.

Photo Credit: mindwise-groningen.nl

When we experience anxiety, our psyche perceives it as a danger, and when this happens, it’s challenging to put things in context and see the bigger picture. This is because, from an evolutionary stand point, we are designed to detect threats in our environment and avoid them to survive.

There’s something deep within the amygdala (a primal part of our brains) that reacts to threats before we consciously process them. For example, we’re frightened by a dark figure we see coming towards us. Our body starts displaying signs of panic; we get that sickening feeling in the stomach, and our hearts pound out of our chest. All of this takes place in milliseconds, far before we consciously realise that the figure is just a friend coming towards us to say ‘hello’ and our heart rate slowly begins to recover.

We have evolved a lot since our hunter-gatherer days in the jungle, however, our brains and our perception still seem to treat everything as a threat to our survival. It doesn’t matter whether it’s our boss being mean to us, a breakup with a high school partner (who won’t mean anything to us in years to come), or simply a rude staff member at our local café…

We can’t help but let things affect us.

Remember when you thought that you would never get over that teenage breakup?

So, does the understanding of a false world or the realisation of the bigger picture make our suffering any less significant?… any less painful?

Well, the short answer is no.

The actual chemical feeling of emotion is basic. The sense of grief from breaking up with a high school girlfriend or the grief of losing a significant loved one in death is not that dissimilar. Of course, the grief of losing anyone in life is far longer and far more significant than a relationship breakup. However, my point is, the initial feeling, the raw chemical emotion is similar.

We are basic creatures whose emotions are usually either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Our emotions are often binary and don’t operate on a sensible scale of intensity relevant to the impact an event may or may not have on our lives in the long-term.

The only thing that defines our experience of emotion is how we process it cognitively. How we use it to change and improve ourselves or how we let it destroy us. It’s about how we either accept or reject it. Embrace it or fight it.

This is where the power of retrospect can play a role. Now, focusing on your past can be a dangerous path to go down. If we view our present life negatively through the lens of hindsight, it leads to feelings of regret. For example, “why did I choose not to take that job?”, “Why did we leave Sydney and move here” or any thought that starts with:

“I would be happier if I had (done / not done something…)”.

However, the positive power of retrospect comes from when we use it as a tool to put things in perspective. To do this, we can reflect on times when, in the past, we felt like our problems were so overwhelming that nothing would ever change… To think about such times and to now realise that these challenges meant nothing in the big picture of life can be powerful and rewarding.

I’ve written before how this is one of the best benefits of keeping a journal. Reading your old journal entries written in times when you felt that life was so dark; can be motivating. This is because, looking back, you now realise that the event and the associated pain was so insignificant. This sort of realisation can help you when you experience those same emotions now or in the future. Think to yourself, “if I’m reading this entry in 5 years, what will I think?”.

The problem is that we’re short-term, reward-seeking, contextual beings. We’re constantly affected by things that matter to us at a particular time and circumstance. Very rarely do we look at the big picture of life or the universe which is something that could put our worries and emotions in context. Instead, we live in our temporary false world of what matters at the time, and we respond emotionally.

So, it seems that the key is to view your current life challenges through the eyes of your future-self, looking back. Would the future-you look back and laugh or, will you still be haunted by whatever’s happening in your world now. If the answer is ‘yes’, meaning future-you thinks that you’re being an emo, then we can determine that we’re living in a false world of short-term context and trivial events.

This is all wonderful in theory but incredibly difficult in practice. The ‘future-you test’ makes sense and is a rational method to judge the seriousness of things you worry about today. However, and this is a BIG however, it doesn’t always stop the emotion, pain and suffering. It seems that we’re not quite evolved enough to be able to completely control our emotions through logic or an understanding and appreciation of something bigger.

It’s like my 3-year-old daughter who can’t be consoled when she’s upset because I didn’t buy her that Kinder Suprise chocolate egg at the supermarket. Now, I try to be rational and logically explain to her that we already have a surprise egg at home that she can have when we get there but, this logic does nothing to stop the emotional outburst and tears.

As adults, I don’t think we’re that different.

We may not throw a visible hissy-fit in public but we still allow emotions to affect us even though all the evidence and logic tells us that our suffering is only short term and means nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Just like we seem almost programmed to not regularly contemplate our own death, we also seem biased towards not viewing ourselves in the greater context and see the bigger picture. Sure, we have moments… usually, when watching a space documentary on Nat Geo, you know, one of those ones that show us how we’re only one of billions of galaxies in the universe… something that makes us feel small. We experience a moment of wonder and stillness. A moment where we realise just how trivial our problems are. But, usually, that only lasts until the commercial break when our mental noise kicks back in, and we’re back to the worries of our false world.

So, what’s the answer? How do we force ourselves to reflect on our insignificance yet significance? How do we go about our daily lives maintaining the fuzzy, awe-inspiring Nat Geo feeling that puts things in context for us? I don’t know. I too have fleeting moments. I find meditation can help, as can, well… watching a LOT of Nat Geo!

Honestly, I’m not sure, but I only hope that with further scientific discovery, the type of discovery that unveils the secrets of the universe, we use this knowledge and realise that we are living on a grand cosmic stage. An arena where workplace conflict, arguments in relationships and family problems can be insignificant in terms of the grand plan of our life. Such moments are of course real and are moments we can learn from, but they don’t define us.

So, next time you’re feeling depressed and wonder why you even bother, look up at the stars, breathe it in, and take a moment to contemplate the insignificance of your problems in the context of the complexity and wonder of life.

Easier said than done?…

Let’s see.