Can Worry Be Creative?

April 3, 2012


Since my cardiac arrest and declining health, I habitually worry about the increasing difficulty of looking after myself as my health declines. People tell me, “Cheer up, it may never happen.” Bad advice. This is no small or unrealistic concern. What they should be telling me is to worry creatively.

When the American swimmer Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal  during the Beijing Olympics people started to pay attention to his training. In addition to rigorous physical training, he made use of creative visualizing. By that I don’t mean he simply imagined himself on the winner’s podium. During the Eighties I too did a course  on that kind of escapist daydreaming. We sat in a group, closed our eyes while soothing acoustics played in the background. A sweet-voiced leader guided us through some very pleasant scenarios, we imagined warm sandy beaches, cool Himalayan mountains, and so on.  Then we were asked to visualize ourselves in that scene achieving whatever it was we wanted in life. This type of creative dreaming has now become standard for Oprah devotees. Dieters visualize themselves all slim in a bikini, some even keep a dream scrapbook of what they want out of life. I gave this up early on because it felt hokey, but now I have realized they are on the right track, except they are missing one key step.

What Michael Phelps did differently is that he backed up his physical training with a kind of virtual training, using the mind he anticipated every conceivable problem. This is beyond planning both in the level of detail and regularity. He created new habits through visualization which included an emotional response. He was even prepared if his googles flooded with water, which actually did happen during the race for the eighth gold medal. He was prepared because he had rehearsed solving this difficulty in his mind.  This is where the power of constructive visualization lies. We can bolster actual efforts by rehearsing solutions mentally.

Think about it. Aren’t we all masters of anticipation? Only we call it worrying. We imagine the future and all the things that could possibly go wrong. But then we stop there because we get disturbed. We miss the most crucial step – figuring out and then rehearsing feasible solutions. By repeatedly solving them in our heads, we can train ourselves to become dexterous at tackling those obstacles.

 In my case I am anxious about the future. Probably I will be all alone in my later years, unable to care for myself. I fear I will end up as one of those statistics, a man who collapses in his messy apartment, the body decaying for over a week before someone finds it. I have had sleepless nights over this scenario. I have written about it in my fiction, it is now so ingrained that there is a real danger it might come true. But here is the good news, habits are not destiny. Any habit, include the habit of worrying, powerful though it may be, is fragile. It is entirely malleable under the right circumstances and all I need to reshape it is my imagination.

When the worry begins, I now welcome it as an opportunity to train myself. I picture myself alone and weaker than I am now. I am older but my mind is still alert because I have dedicated efforts to this goal. I am able to do the shopping, to cook for myself, to keep a clean apartment.  I picture each daily activity in minute detail and myself successfully negotiating the tasks.  I see myself as content and at peace, accepting the inevitable wearing out of my body. All this is backed up by the habits I have cultivated of exercise, nutrition, self-care and awareness. My reward for imagining a happy outcome is peace of mind, which itself increases the likelihood of it coming true. This goes beyond planning. This takes the emotional responses into account as well.

This has worked so well that I did not stop there. I use it any time I am faced with a potentially anxious situation. By making a habit of this, the very fabric of our character changes. Habits maybe subconscious but being mindful about them, and them actively redirecting them reshapes who we are. There is no denying this takes work, motivation, will-power. But then what choice do any of us have?

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