Text me when your plane lands.
Text me to let me know you got home safely.
Where are you?
How are you?
Hey did you get my last text? (sent 2 minutes ago!)
With the proliferation of cell phones, most of us have dramatically increased our checking on loved ones. In a March 2018 poll by the APA 68% of respondents said they worry about “keeping myself or my family safe.” Our cell phones are our favorite tool to keep that worry in check. But is it really working for us?
This innocent micro-behavior is an integral part of a mega-problem, the most common problem I treat—intolerance of uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty and worry about loved ones are often associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and OCD. But we don’t have to have this disorder for us to be engaging in checking behaviors that interfere with relaxation and presence.
The impulse to check and see how others are doing is triggered by our limbic system, what I call the monkey mind, that governs our emotions. When a loved one is out of sight and we can’t be 100% certain they are happy and safe, the monkey sets off alarms in the form of cortisol and fight-or-flight signals. Our brain gets hijacked and we start thinking in “what-ifs”. What if my loved one got in an accident? What if he’s sick? What if she doesn’t love me anymore?
Those thoughts and feelings are eased when we pick up the phone and get confirmation that they are OK, but this reassurance comes at a hidden cost. When we actively check to make certain someone is safe and happy, we reinforce the perception that there was a threat to their safety and happiness, in effect “feeding the monkey”. Over time we fall into a pattern of addiction that distracts us from being present in our own lives. If we want less anxiety about our loved ones we must increase our tolerance of uncertainty by putting our checking behaviors on a diet.
If we were going on a food diet, we would start with monitoring what we’re eating. To put ourselves on a checking diet, we begin by monitoring how often we check on loved ones in the course of at least a day, or even better, a week. (You can download this form or you can keep track on your phone.) Once you have an average of how often you check on loved ones every day, cut this number in half as a target for your diet.
When we begin resisting the urge to check, our anxiety will increase. The monkey mind doesn’t like us being uncertain and it doesn’t like being ignored. But like all our feelings, anxiety has a beginning, middle and an end. When we ride it out, we break our pattern of checking impulsively. It’s the short-term pain that will bring long term tolerance of uncertainty, the mindset that allows us to be relaxed and present in our relationships. What greater gift can we give the ones we love?
About the Author
Jennifer Shannon is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist and author specializing in anxiety. She co-founded the Santa Rosa Center For Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is the author of Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind, The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens, The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens and A Teen’s Guide To Getting Stuff Done, all published by New Harbinger Press.