The Independent recently carried a report on how much people in Britain worry. It arose from a survey commissioned by Vodaphone and carried out my MindLab International in Brighton. The poll of 2,000 men and women found that on average they spend two hours a day feeling tense.
38% of people put this down to lack of time and 60% feel it is affecting their wellbeing. A typical focus for these stresses could be losing a wallet, leaving a bag on public transport, a pet going missing, losing a bank card or breaking down in a car.
Another recent survey of children found similar results. A survey of 700 Year 6 pupils found that almost two thirds (63%) worry ‘all the time’ about at least one thing to do with their school life, home life or themselves. The chief concerns were about family, friends being okay, and not doing well at school.
When worry reaches a certain level it qualifies people for a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), not that it really helps us to understand it to label it in that way. But people with GAD worry about the same things as everyone else, but worry more and feel that their worries are less controllable.
Age seems to help. Older people generally worry less. They may worry more about their health, but other worries recede somewhat.
Worry is a wellbeing issue about which Jesus has something to say. He is against worry, and says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25). The recent survey reported in the Independent puts worry down to the pressures of modern life, but it may be an age-old problem.
I believe that many wellbeing problems can be the start of a spiritual journey, and that is as true of worry as it is of other wellbeing problems. It is interesting that the situations that trigger worry are similar to those that trigger prayer. They are both responses to challenging circumstances and to uncertainty.
That leads to the interesting idea that prayer might function as an alternative to worry; if people prayed more they might worry less. Both are ways of thinking through difficult circumstances, but prayer is more constructive than worry, and can contribute to better adjustment.
Psychology has developed strategies for trying to eliminate worry, but that is inherently hard to do, as Jesus probably realised. However, prayer can provide an effective and more constructive alternative to worry. It involves a disciplined attention to what is concerning you, rather than trying to divert attention from it.
It is rather like how mindfulness can help to relieve pain by encouraging you to attend to your pain in a new and disciplined way, rather than by trying to ignore the pain.