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Get Control of Your Worries before They Get Control of You

By Mike McCurley

I heard an interesting "economic indicator" the other day: some dentists are seeing an increase in cracked teeth, presumably due to their patients grinding their teeth at night, an activity associated with tension and anxiety.

Everybody seems to be worried these days. If you've lost your job or your house, or you're buried in debt, those worries are probably justified. Others may not be. That doesn't mean they won't happen, just that there's not much we can do about it.

But worrying alone won't do anything to solve your problems. In fact, the time and energy you spend worrying is almost always better spent doing something else, whether it's actually addressing the source of your worries or doing another positive action to distract you from your worries.

If you're up nights worrying, or you're otherwise letting your anxiety get the best of you, you need to find another way to cope with your worries.

Because so many people turn to drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy habits to get away from their worries, those in 12-step recovery programs recite what's known as The Serenity Prayer: "God, Grant me the serenity to accept what I can't change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Whether you believe in a Higher Power or not, the serenity prayer offers all the basic ingredients to help worriers cope with their fears.

(I should note that my recommendations address moderate, intermittent worrying. If you suffer from chronic anxiety or you find that these tips don't help, I encourage you to seek professional help.)

CHANGING WHAT YOU CAN

If your worry is about something you have control over, or something you can or should take action to address, then your best recourse is to take action. It doesn't have to be life-changing or drastic, but you must make a plan.

Let's say you're in debt and facing foreclosure. Merely distracting yourself from your problems won't solve them. You need to tackle your debt and deal with your mortgage holder. But every time you sit down to start work on it, you get overwhelmed and depressed and drink beer (or eat brownies) instead.

Sometimes you can't do this on your own. It often helps to call on a trusted friend or family member (your "coach") to help you map out your problems and come up with a strategy to tackle them. If you have a habit of avoiding your problems, make an appointment with yourself (and, if needed, your coach) and allot 1 hour-just 1 hour-to addressing them.

Your first step is to get your worries out of your head. You must write them down. Only when you have it all in front of you can you deal with it. If necessary, break your worries down into categories and sub-categories.

What steps must you take to address your problems? What obstacles do you face (those obstacles can be concrete, like physical or financial limitations, or they can be abstract, like your own lack of motivation)? How can you overcome those obstacles?

Once you have addressed those questions, it's time to draft your Action Plan. Plot out specific steps you'll take to address your problems and when you'll do them. It helps to be held accountable to someone else, so plan to report back to your coach at regular intervals.

Solving your problems will take concrete action. Worrying isn't action. Only action is action.

But what about those worries you can't do anything-or anything reasonable-to address?

ACCEPTING WHAT YOU CAN'T CHANGE

If you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about something you have little or no control over-the overall economy, your child's safety when she's away from you, that lump you've already gotten checked out, or whatever it is that's got you up nights-it's time to find ways to make peace with them.

You must accept those things that you cannot change. But how?

Expert suggestions sometimes contradict each other, so you should try out the ones you like and stick with what works.

Thought-stopping: When you find yourself starting to obsess on the object of your worry, simply yell "Stop!" It may help to wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you yell "Stop!" If done often enough, it may prevent you from worrying.

Experts disagree on this approach, however, along the lines of "the best way to make someone think of a pink elephant is to tell them 'Whatever you do, don't think of a pink elephant.'" It might also create a rebound obsession, making you worry more.

The approach works for some, though, so it may be worth trying.

Set time aside to brood: Rather than not letting yourself think about your worries, this approach lets you wallow in them, but only for a set period of time, no more than 30 minutes. If your worries intrude at another part of the day, tell yourself that you'll be able to worry about this at, say, 7:30 p.m.

When you sit down to worry, let yourself ponder the worst-case scenario. Once you let your mind take itself to the outskirts of your worries, and once you do that every night for a few weeks, you will begin to see the complete improbability of the object of your anxiety. You may also find it dull and repetitive, which is great.

Distract yourself: One of the most effective and healthiest ways to let go of worries is to give yourself something else to do. These are some of the best distractions:

Physical exercise is one of the best, because it also brings with it a world of health benefits (not the least of which is the release of mood-lifting hormones). If you don't already make regular exercise a part of your day-even if it's two 15-minute walks in your neighborhood-now is the time to do it.

Slow, deep breathing is one of the most effective-and simplest to master-techniques to relax. If you find yourself fixating on your worry, stop what you're doing, sit down and breathe deeply for one minute. You may add a mantra, something like "let it go," if you like.

Yoga and meditation both require a bit of instruction and practice before they yield results, but they both have thousands of years and millions of devotees to their credit. Meditation, in particular, has been shown to have measurable positive physiological effects on those who practice it frequently.

Talk to someone: Connecting with another person is a great way to distract yourself from your worries. Have lunch with a friend, strike up a conversation with the person next to you in line, or visit with the librarian about book recommendations. You may just be distracting them from whatever worries they have on their mind, too!

Do something immediately pleasurable: A snuggle with your grandson, petting your dog, watching a hilarious YouTube video, or taking a warm bath are all good suggestions. You simply can't be all that anxious with those positive feelings running through your body.

Find a new passion: Take up Sudoku, painting, ballroom dancing, or join a book club. If you can take the energy you've been devoting to fretting and apply it to something positive, you'll not only worry less, but you might just add a whole new layer of joy to your life.

THE WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Knowing whether your worry is something you can change can be tricky. After all, that growth could be cancer, but your doctor tells you it isn't.

But doctors aren't always right, are they? In fact, you've heard hundreds (well, 2 or 3) stories where whole teams of doctors misdiagnosed a situation until it was too late. So even though your doctor tells you it's a harmless growth, you need a second, or third, or fourth opinion, right?

This is where the wisdom part of the plan comes in.

Only you know whether you have a tendency to blow such worries out of proportion, so only you know if you have a hair-trigger "gut," one that tells you your fears are justified even if they probably aren't. If you suspect you aren't as self-aware as you think you are, though, consult a trusted friend. Hopefully, he will be honest with you and assure you that yes, in fact, you are a hypochondriac and will be able to list 3 or 4 other needless medical journeys you've been on.

The key here is plausibility. Is your fear plausible? Yes, anything is possible, but if it isn't plausible, your worries are probably unproductive.

If your worry isn't justified-if what you fear is highly implausible or if there is nothing you can do about it-then you need to accept your reality and cope with your fear and your uncertainty (using the tips mentioned above).

Everyone worries. But facing up to those things we can change and making peace with those things we can't are the keys to true serenity.

Recommended Reading:

"Coping with Anxiety," Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. and Lorna Garano, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

"The Worry Cure," Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., Harmony Books

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