Family dynamics are the invisible force behind every caregiving journey

How you can stop worrying about your parents

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
-Leo Buscaglia

Has anyone ever told you to worry more or that you are not worried enough? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.  

Sons and daughters of aging parents are notorious for worrying. If it were helpful, I would suggest you worry more. Worrying, however, doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help us even if it is a realistic assessment of what might happen.  It rarely spurs us on to solve a problem or take action. In fact, it can immobilize us and interfere with effective problem solving.

“What If” thinking

Worry is, by definition, future oriented and usually involves “what if” thinking. There is quite a lot of “what if” thinking for daughters and sons with aging parents. Do any of these “what if” thoughts keep you up at night or distract and stress you during the day?

  • What if they fall and break something?
  • What if this medication doesn’t help?
  • What if I can’t take care of them any longer?
  • What if I get sick? Have a heart attack? Get cancer?
  • What if I lose my job? Have to quit my job?
  • What if our money runs out?
  • What if…

When we believe our worry thoughts, the result is considerable tension, stress, and distress. We end up living as if the scenario we are worried about is actually happening right now and it isn’t!

So, how can we worry less? One thing we know for sure is that simply telling ourselves not to worry is as effective as trying to control the weather.

It is good to have a number of different strategies to try out. You can then focus on the ones that work best for you.

Strategies to deal with worry

  • Write it down.
    Your hand is slower than your mind. Writing down your thoughts can help slow down the worry thoughts.
  • Schedule worry time.
    This is really about postponing worry. Instead of arguing with your mind and trying to force yourself not to worry, give yourself permission at a designated time in the future. You can even put it in your calendar. With the postponement, you create some worry-free time for yourself and people often find that the worry or the intensity of the worry has passed when it comes to the scheduled time. Postponing worry also helps to break a habit of dwelling on worries. As you develop the skill of postponing worrying, you also begin to realize that you have more control than you think.
  • Establish practices to calm your mind and body.
    Worry ignites our nervous system. Choose a practice which is a good fit for you such as: meditation, yoga, relaxation exercises, and/or physical exercise.
  • Practice acceptance.
    When all is said and done, if you know you can handle whatever life hands you, worry will have less traction with you. You can build this acceptance and resilience by playing out the worst case scenarios and deliberately accepting that what you are afraid of or worrying about could happen. Related to this, you can take the worst case scenario and tell yourself, “
    And if that happens, I will handle it.” Think about difficult situations in the past that you have handled. Literally picture yourself, imagine yourself, handling it. What does it look like? What are you doing differently? What are you saying to yourself and to others?  
  • Counter worry thoughts with positive, supportive statements.
    Worrying is a form of negative self-talk that is often a habit. Countering involves writing down and rehearsing positive statements. You create positive programming by writing down and rehearsing positive statements that directly refute or invalidate your negative, worry thoughts.  This strategy is especially helpful if your worrying involves catastrophic thinking which is irrational and has no basis in facts.
  • Consider mindfulness practices.
    As mentioned above, worrying is, by definition, about the future. One of the most helpful ways to learn to live in the present/moment, is to practice mindfulness. You can learn to notice your worry thoughts and not engage them. If this interests you as a strategy to deal with worry, you may want to take this excellent (and free) 8-week online mindfulness-based stress reduction course:
  • Consciously work with your “what if” thoughts
    and turn them into “
    How will I handle or deal with such and such if that does happen?” This is a deliberate effort to turn worrying into problem-solving.
  • Practice letting go of worry thoughts.
    Need help on how to do this?  

The opposite of worry

If you are not worrying, what are you doing instead? You are living in the present. You are facing your fears. You are accepting uncertainty. You are being resilient.

In order to stop worrying, any attachment to the belief that your worrying serves a useful purpose needs to be dropped like a hot potato!  Left unchecked, worry will wreak havoc on your well-being, sucking the life and energy out of you.

Worrying can also have a negative impact on your relationship with your parents, and others. If you are worrying, you are by definition ‘in your head’ and not in the moment with others.  You aren’t really present with them. Also, while well intentioned, parents often experience their kids’ worrying as patronizing and controlling.

Caring for older adults comes with much uncertainty. Learning to live with this uncertainty will serve you and your relationship with your parents well.

What is your best strategy to interrupt worrying?

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