I grew up worrying—I learned from a pro. My mother, an incessant worrywart, wore the moniker proudly, as if it bestowed legitimacy and dignity to her proclivity/affliction. She worried about my father, a morose drinker and sometimes philanderer. She worried about my brother and me, though our youthful mishaps were rare and relatively mild. I wonder now if her worry was a talisman to keep us all safe, our household intact.
She was at peak performance in the car. Dad was a vigilant driver but if he accelerated to pass a lumbering truck, if someone cut in front of us, if visibility was impaired by rain or fog, on winding mountain or cliffside roads (usually avoided), her foot hit the floorboard, her hands gripped the seat. “Harold, watch out!” she hissed through pinched lips.
Worry: noun – anguish, anxiety, perturbation, trouble, bother, distress, concern, care, upset, disquiet, unease, misgiving, apprehension; verb: fret, panic, brood, fear, agonize, dwell on. From the Middle-English wirien, to injure or kill by biting and shaking the throat, as a dog worries a bone by gnawing on it, as my mother wrings her hands.
Worry and anxiety are used interchangeably, but according to Psychology Today, worry is more focused on thoughts, while anxiety infuses our bodies. The Anxiety and Depression Association claims that nearly 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from an anxiety disorder. A 2017 study found that three out of four Americans reported feeling stressed in the last month. They didn’t distinguish between worry, stress, or anxiety, but according to the experts:
– Worry is when your mind dwells on negative thoughts, things that could go wrong.
– Stress is a physiological response in the brain’s limbic system.
– Anxiety fuses the cognitive element (worry) and physiological response (stress).
My mother worried herself sick. Ultimately she worried herself to death. The first manifestation was stomach ulcers, her condition an unrelenting presence in my life—the bland food we ate, her chronic pain and discomfort, the need to tiptoe around her fragile state. Doctors dismissed her pain as psychosomatic, which didn’t make it any less real. But she could hold us, the family, responsible. “You’re giving my ulcers ulcers,” she would say to one or another of us after some minor infraction, only partly in jest.
Maalox was her remedy. She went through bottle after bottle, the lines around her mouth etched with a permanent chalkiness. Her condition worsened over time until, her complaints finally heeded, she underwent surgery. But she didn’t stop worrying. I wasn’t aware of her taking anti-anxiety medications—nicotine was her sedative of choice. A lifelong smoker, cigarettes calmed her nerves, and whatever risk they imposed was worth it. Even after she developed lung cancer. Even after she had a lung removed. Even after her cancer metastasized. “I can’t stop,” she said.
Jewish mothers worry and pass it on to their daughters, it’s said, just as their mothers passed it on to them. I grew up worrying, fearful and insecure: someone won’t love me, something will hurt me, I’ll fail and look stupid. After I became a mother I fretted about my daughter—as a baby, child, teen, even now, middle-aged, healthy and happy. I tried to keep my fears to myself, to protect her, but it must be carried by the x chromosome or pass through the placenta. “I worry about everything,” she says, “big things, little things, stupid things.”
A recommended antidote is to consider the worst that can happen. And, finding it extremely improbable and/or not so bad, we won’t worry. But what if the worst happens? My grandson went from a joyful child to a moody, volatile teen, then descended into drugs. My daughter and I were helpless to help him—all we could do was worry. Fearing the worst, we worried more. And when he was 27, the worst happened. Now, in our enduring grief, we don’t have to worry about him anymore.
“What, me worry?” is the maxim of Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman that many of us grew up with, the sentiment of blissful unconcern echoed in the 1988 song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” In the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, defense attorney James Donovan asks accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel why he isn’t alarmed that he might face the electric chair here or be killed upon his return to the Soviet Union. Abel responds, “Would it help?”
Consider the 2020 elections. Consider Covid-19. I worried about the outcomes, while knowing they were out of my control. Nervous, anxious, tense, jittery, antsy—each word says something distinctive; each gets a little closer to what I experienced. Does it make a difference? If it doesn’t, why do we have all these words?
How simple it sounds—mind over matter. We may know when our fears are groundless and when they’re valid. We know fretting won’t help the situation, but rational responses don’t necessarily follow. And sometimes a little preemptive worry is just the thing to ward off the demons. Sometimes anxiety is the appropriate response to chaos.
Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in numerous literary journals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, ellipsis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), Superstition Review, and Whale Road Review. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and she recently served as guest nonfiction editor for Hobart. She lives in San Diego, California and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.