A few months ago, shortly after the fire had displaced us from our home, I was reading through the Psalms. At the time, I had lots on my mind and there was plenty of uncertainty swirling around. And then one morning, in the middle of that season, I came across the following line:
“Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Psalm 37:8
The Psalmist wasn’t just saying “don’t fret,” but was also issuing a warning about the consequences of doing so. But what is it about fretting that can be so destructive? And how does it differ, if at all, from fear?
Fear and fretting
Although related, we can make a distinction between fear in general and fretting in particular. It’s natural to feel fear when confronted with real dangers, and this is good. If you’re going for a walk in the woods and meet a grizzly bear, you’ll most likely experience some fear. That’s what happens when you see the possibility of impending danger or pain. And that instinctual sense of fear can cause you to take immediate steps to escape or mitigate the threat.
In these situations, fear is not only natural but beneficial. Fretting, though, is different. Being overly anxious or worried about tomorrow provides no benefits. Rather than helping you escape potential danger, it in itself poses a threat. It can cause you to react differently than you otherwise would. When you’re in a state of constant worry, you may jump to conclusions or act irrationally. Or you may find yourself paralyzed, unable to do anything. Constant fretting about the future can also disturb your sleep and eventually affect your health.
Yet, knowing that being overly anxious about tomorrow isn’t good for you doesn’t make it any easier to stop. You can tell yourself, “don’t fret,” but stopping is a different story. And yet, that’s the very thing the Psalmist instructs us to do: “fret not yourself.”
Telling yourself, “don’t think like that” is not enough in itself. You’ll also have to fill your mind with something else. Because if you don’t have something else to think about, you’ll quickly return to familiar patterns of thought. The key is to get your mind focused elsewhere. Distraction, in this sense, can be a useful tool. And there are countless ways–good, bad, and neutral—to keep your mind occupied.
For some, watching Netflix or playing video games or scrolling through social media are the distractions of choice. And with smartphones often close by, most people can quickly find a diversion if they want it. For others, work may serve as a distraction from things they don’t want to think about. Alcohol may serve the same role for yet others. But not all diversions are beneficial; some have negative side-effects worth avoiding.
Ideally, you would not only be able to divert your mind to something else, but that something else could also help you deal with the sources of the worry in the first place. Sometimes we fret about the future because our perspective has gone out of focus. Our attention is on what could go wrong but is blind to all that could go right. Or we’ve given more credence to things that may not even be fact, instead of remembering what we know to be true. And the result is anxiety and worry.
So what can be done to 1) direct our mind away from worry-inducing thoughts, and 2) focus it on something that can counteract the sources of these thoughts?
One practice that can help is to intentionally list out the various things you have to be thankful for whenever you find yourself starting to fret. This not only helps take your mind off the source of anxiety but also helps reframe your perspective. You remind yourself of all the things that have gone right, of how many gifts you’ve been given, how fortunate you are to even be here. Things may not be perfect, but they may be better than you realize.
Another practice is to spend time memorizing different passages, verses, or quotes that contain truths you want to remember. Your mind is not only occupied during the time spent learning them but also gains something else to chew on subconsciously. And then, in those times when you find yourself feeling overly anxious, you can choose to practice recalling these passages to mind, which again, both redirects the focus of your mind and reframes your perspective. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful in the middle of the night when my mind is racing. Choosing to consciously recall passages I’ve learned, or am learning, provides a beneficial diversion.
I certainly have not eliminated all fretting from my life. Perhaps that’s why the line from the Psalmist stood out to me. But I have found that having a plan ahead of time does help. I may not be able to stop myself from worrying altogether–much like I may not be able to stop the instinctual sense of fear I experience in a dangerous situation. But when I notice myself going down that road, I do have a choice. Will I allow my thoughts to roam wherever, or will I choose to redirect them?
We all have that same choice. And having a plan in place ahead of time for where we want to redirect our thoughts in those moments makes it that much easier to follow through when the time arrives.