This is How Worry Can Steal our Breath and Also Return It

by | Nov 14, 2021 | Anxiety | 14 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about worry lately. I hear it in my clients. I see it in comments on my posts. I watch how it shows up in my kids. And, oh, how I know worry in my own cells. It’s part of my DNA, quite literally.

I’ve been curious about the shape and tone of worry, about where it lives in the body and how it plays out in the soul.

Worry is heavy. It’s a dark shroud in the middle of the night. Worry, in fact, loves the night. It loves to wake us up at 3am, what we call “the witching hour”, and if we find ourselves awake then for other reasons, worry is the first one on the scene ready to whisper its foreboding predictions into an undistracted ear. We must be especially mindful of worry’s convictions during these hours. How many times I’ve awakened with worry proclaiming a horrible “truth” about my kids or husband or health as if it’s written in the stars only to find the iron-clad argument dissolving and splintering in the light of day?

Worry weighs into the lining of skin, into bones, into heart. It expressions descend down the line of ancestors: the furrowed brow; the tsk-tsk of tongue; the head that shakes “no”, that denies life, that works at cross-currents to trust.

Worry makes it hard to breathe. It hangs out in the lungs and on the diaphragm, it follows that long Vagus nerve down its winding pathway from neck to chest to heart and squeezes tightly, refusing to let go. Worry doesn’t understand the phrase “letting go”. It hangs on for dear life because that’s what it’s been conditioned to do.

What does worry sound like?

It sounds tight and high-pitched. It sounds closed-throated and thin. It sounds like fear. It sounds hollow. It sounds like control.

Of course, worry and control are closely linked.

Worry says, “If I worry enough I can prevent bad things from happening.”

Worry says, “Worry is a byproduct of loving and if I stop worrying so much it means I’ve stopped loving.”

Worry says, “It’s my worry that has kept me/us safe and successful all these years. It’s my constant attention to my work or kids or self that has led to thriving.”

It’s a lie.

It’s not that we can stop paying attention. Life demands that we pay attention. We must attune to our kids if they’re going to thrive. We must put energy into work if we’re going to find success. And there is a positive side of being a highly sensitive person prone to worry in that it pushes us to take things seriously.

But there’s a crucial difference between worry and paying attention.

Worry perseverates. Paying attention opens to possibility.

Worry sees through a narrow pinhole camera. Paying attention sees through a wide and wise telescopic lens.

Worry believes that I and I alone am responsible for outcomes. Paying attention remembers that there are other people and sources that are guiding the ship.

Worry is very much of this human realm, a part of our small, fear-based minds. Paying attention connects to something bigger, something vast that holds us and carries us and our loved ones through this tenuous, beautiful life.

When I’m mired in worry, I feel collapse. When I remember to connect to trust and access the practices that help me to surrender, I feel expansive. My breath, trapped and tight only moments before, now becomes expansive, as if it hold hands with the sky and the invisible, benevolent beings that dwell in that spacious, timeless place.

I often hear statements like, “My work is too much” or “My life is too much.” Sometimes it’s true: life as we live it is often too much because we don’t live in community and we’re not meant to handle the challenges of life on our own. This is an institutional failure, not a personal one.

But sometimes it’s not that our life is too much. It’s the worry that’s too much. It’s the fear of “what ifs” that weighs into us and creates the burden of too-muchness.

We must continue to poke holes in the compelling argument that it’s the worry itself that leads to health and success. This is not true. It cannot be true. And there are moments when I’m aware of the possibility that the opposite could be true: that the worry causes logjams and that without it there could be even more flow and ease and goodness in all realms. 

What helps us free our breath from worry’s tyranny and reclaim our connection to spaciousness and light?

One way is to practice three simple steps, which I’ve shared here.

Another way is to make a poem or prayer that reminds you of the balance between control and surrender a part of your daily, or even hourly, life. One of the most powerful prayers I know along these lines is the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.

As always, feel free to replace the word “God” when any word that connects you to something greater than yourself (Nature, Breath, Sky, Love, Great Spirit).

When I discovered a Jewish version of this prayer, it immediately became part of my regular practice. Alongside Tonglen, which you can learn more about here (I teach it in more depth in almost all of my courses), the Ozi V’zimrat Yah prayer, or some version of it that resonates with you, has the radical potential to transform worry and bring you into closer alignment with the current of life that is informed by trust.

And so I begin each day by singing Ozi V’zimrat Yah. When I’m chanting the first part, I bring the parts of my life that require “will”, whether around my kids or my work, to the forefront of awareness, and when I chant the second part I see something very light and sturdy coming through to carry the effort with me. In connecting with this prayer I’m also setting a very clear intention for this decade of my fifties to let go and let go and let go of the worry that has weighed in my mother-line for centuries. And I invite you to join me, no matter what decade you’re in!

What poems, prayers, images or practices remind you of the balance between control and surrender?

Here’s a beautiful version of the Ozi V’zimrat Yah prayer created and sung by Rabbi Shefa Gold:

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14 Comments

  1. as a poet, really appreciate this post. My go to’s, for RA, are Kahlil Gibran’s ‘On Love’ and ‘On Marriage’

    Reply
    • He’s a touchstone for me, too, Joshua. Thank you for those specific suggestions. 🙏🏽

      Reply
  2. So beautiful

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  3. Love this! Just what I needed to read. Thank you!

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  4. thank you, sheryl! one of my go to prayers is st. francis de sales’ ‘be at peace.’

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  5. I really needed this. Thank you Sheryl. 💖

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  6. I have the Serenity prayer framed and hanging in my meditation room 🙏 A song I love is Deep Peace by devotional singer Carrie Grossman ❤️

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    • Loved Deep Peace. I’ve only heard male voices doing this type of music/prayer. Her voice was so gentle it touched my soul. Thanks.

      Reply
  7. Oh, was this on time. Thanks so much for this beautiful prayer Sheryl

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  8. I will keep this in mind – that worry does not have the power to make things better.
    I loved listening to this Jewish prayer as I got ready for work this morning … I feel connected not only to my Jewish ancestors but all who seek peace today.

    Reply
  9. Thanks for this article. Between post-Covid funding losses in the arts, and a new partner who’s delightful (and with whom im experiencing alternately the worry of loss of them or myself), I’ve entered a season of feeling inundated and at times immobilized by worry. Some practices im finding helpful though include:
    —- the “somatic consensus” work with David Weinstock’s “Liminal Somatics” through NVC
    — the yoga practice of alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, in Sanskrit
    — Yoga with Adrien’s “yoga for stress and anxiety”

    The above said, I still find my anxiety dips in the day. The first 4 months of our relationship were “golden,” and we’ve begun to talk in future tenses. It’s the most reciprocal and open hearted relationship I’ve ever experienced. Aw it’s some life events such as a death in her family, job stress, and job loss, we’re discovering ways in which we both have anxiety and also different needs within this anxiety. It’s scary. Is it ok to have these differences, and to emotionally “snag” on each other in them? I need to learn how to offer and request space better. Do you have any resources on this? We have so much to learn, and I fear doing something wrong, alternately worried that one or the other of us isn’t “enough” for the other (a term I know you delve into throughout your work).

    Reply

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