Do you struggle with worry and anxiety? I used to be a chronic worrier. I’ve made some progress using an index card. I wrote a question, then added three sub-questions on the card. It changed my life.
That’s my intro. That’s my compelling hook to draw people into the material I’m going to write. If my index card can help people as it helped me, it would be wrong not to share it!
The questions serve as a sort of worry matrix for me. I stole stuff from Jesus’ teachings on worry. I don’t think He minds. Even if you don’t value the teachings of Jesus, this material is also the backbone of stoic philosophy. So… don’t take my word for it… take Jesus’ advice… and don’t take His word for it… listen to Epictetus.
Here’s what I did:
Take an index card and, at the top, write: Should I Be Worrying About This?
Below that, write these three bullets:
-Is it happening right now?
-Is it within my span of control?
-Is it something God cares about?
Carry the card with you. Read it whenever you catch your mind spiraling downward. Soon it will be your mind’s immediate response to worry. That’s it. That’s the plan that actually helped me worry less. I’ll give you some thoughts behind each question to create some depth.
Here are Jesus’ famous words about worry from His Sermon On The Mount in Matthew 6. I bolded the phrases that apply to my questions.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom [lifestyle] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Side note: I love how Jesus avoids commanding us to not worry. He could have said, “Don’t worry about things! …or I’ll give you something to worry about!” Rather than command us, or threaten the already anxious listener, Jesus invites us to think differently about things. “Don’t think like this. Instead, think like this.” I appreciate that approach.
Is It Happening Right Now?
Jesus says clearly that we are not to worry about tomorrow. He sort of says, “Tomorrow is coming whether you worry or not.”, or, “Things are in place to handle tomorrow.” He essentially tells us that our worry is a wasted effort on something that literally does not yet exist. As the Stoics would say, “The only thing we possess is this moment.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, in his letter to the Philippian Christians, Paul tells them that the ONE THING he does (implying that it was a major habit) was to forget about the past. God’s mercy allows us to forget about that stupid thing we did last week. So, if it’s not happening right now, it must either be something that may happen in the future, which Jesus plainly tells us NOT to worry about. Or, it already happened in the past, which Paul tells us is the “one thing” he never thinks about. If it’s not happening right now, God tells us it’s not our business to be concerned with.
If you don’t care what the Bible says, you still know that’s all true logic anyway. It does no good to worry about something that either has already happened and cannot be undone or has yet to happen.
Train your brain to ask the question, “Is it happening right now?”. If it’s not, talk to yourself, rather than listen to yourself. Your brain functions like a friend. If you say, “I’m not allowed to worry about that, because it’s not happening right now.”, I promise it will start to be obedient. Try it for a few weeks and see for yourself!
Is It Within My Span Of Control?
Jesus says, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” He essentially is telling us the same thing Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, built his teachings around: “Control what you can. Accept the rest.”
This question unlocks one of the greatest habits to alleviate anxiety. Think deeply about your concern. Assess what does lay within your control. Create a plan to actually do things that could reduce the problem, even if it’s just a little bit. Then focus only on that plan. When worry comes, you just focus on the things you can control.
Let’s say you have a bill due. It is happening right now. It is also within your span of control. You create a plan. You are only going to eat pancakes you make from scratch for one month. You’re also going to cancel Netflix. This will give you money to pay the bill and an extra hundred dollars for a small reserve. Maybe you’ll do this until you have $500 for a reserve. You have an actual plan to reduce the problem. Your mind is at it… “Your bill is due for that thing!” You say, “I know. I have a plan. I’m focused on the plan.”
Marriage trouble? “I’ve scheduled time with a good marriage counselor.” “I’m reading Love & Respect and will implement it.” “I’m going to be focused and present with my spouse, making good eye contact during our conversations. I have a plan. I’m focused on that.”
Health concerns? Schedule a wellness visit and get your numbers. Meet with a personal trainer. Use Myfinesspal to monitor your eating. Focus on your plan.
Whatever the concern, you stay focused only on what you can control. You’re the new Bill Belichick of your team! The press (your brain) is asking tough questions! You have one answer, “We’re focused on next Sunday (your plan for the crisis).”
The real answer will often be, “No. It’s not in my control at all.” You cannot worry about those things. Tell your brain, “I’m not allowed to worry about that.” It will start to relent. Watch!
Is It Something God Cares About?
Honestly, we should probably start with this one, but it’s not like that on my card so I didn’t present it in that order.
Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
If God doesn’t care about the results, why are we worrying about it? This is humbling. When I started to ask that question of my worries, guess what I found? Most of the things I worry about I know that God isn’t all that interested in the outcome.
I really don’t believe God cares about whether or not my son is a shortstop. If God is concerned about my sons’ batting averages, I bet it’s not at the top of His dreams for them. I’m sure He wants them to be good stewards of their talents, but does He really care if they are straight-A students? Does He care if they are popular at school? Does He care if we get a nicer house? Does He care that we get into a nicer car to drive? Does He really care about that promotion? Is that promotion even good for you? I’m sure God wants us to enjoy our lives, but I also know that much of the suburban American pursuit of happiness actually relies on things that will not, in the end, make us happy. So we spend a lot of time stressing about things that have nothing to do with God’s Kingdom (way of life). If the answer is “No. God is not concerned with this.”, that should be an easy silencer for our brain.
One other exercise is to have an imaginary conversation about your worries with a fictitious parent raising their child in war-torn Syria (only fictitious because you don’t actually know one). Tell them how worried you are that your daughter may not get into “The” Ohio State University! Tell them you’re worried because the weather looks dicey for your Disney trip! That convo gives me quick perspective.
I’ve rambled long enough. That one index card with those three guiding questions has brought actual help. I’m less anxious and worried than I used to be from that exercise.
I hope you’ll give it a shot, and let me know if it helps!