Taming Your Worries

A severe headache sends you scouring medical advice books and the web for information. You're just looking to reassure yourself that nothing serious is wrong.

But the more you read, the more you worry. It's probably just eyestrain. But here's a description of dengue fever—and what about brain tumors? Pretty soon, you've convinced yourself that you've got a rare disease... and your tiny worry has blossomed into a big fat fear.

What, me worry? We all do—it's normal. It's in our nature to pay more attention to warning signs than to positive news. Human beings are designed to be on the alert for trouble.

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But for a significant portion of us, the worrying swells out of control. No longer a survival mechanism, it becomes a destructive obsession. We fret all the time, over relationships, money, job, health, kids.

There's no stopping the habitual worrier. Studies of worriers show that fretting actually makes them less anxious—at least while they're in the midst of it.

That's because worrying gives the illusion of control. You think that by imagining all the worst things that could happen, you can have solutions in place beforehand. But the reality is that since you'll never think of all the possibilities, your worrying work is never done.

In one study, worriers were asked to write down everything they were concerned about during a two-week period. At the end of that time, 85% of the things they feared actually came out just fine. But in the weird logic of fretting, many worriers actually think that their concern somehow prevented something bad from happening.

According to Robert Leahy, Ph.D., president of the International Association of Cognitive Psychotherapy and author of the forthcoming book The Worry Cure (Harmony Books, November 2005) worriers respond differently to frightening situations than other people. For most people, confronting something scary is terrifying at first, and then quickly becomes easier to deal with. But worriers stay upset, rather than becoming less anxious over time. Worriers also can't tolerate uncertainty. A worrier always wants more information, wants to be absolutely sure—and needs a perfect solution to the problem.

Most anti-worrying strategies, like trying to distract yourself or convince yourself that nothing bad will happen, work for only a few minutes or hours. Deliberately trying to shut out the disturbing thoughts can backfire, making them even more powerful.

Instead, Leahy suggests that you learn which worries are productive and which aren't. The key is whether or not you can do something active about your fear. Afraid that you are losing touch with your family? Take action—send your brother an email. Worried about money? Do something right now: start making a daily list of what you spend, or set up your bank account to automatically save a small amount of money each month.

One small change often has the power to take the edge off a big fear, and allow you to begin to address it without having it take over your life.

As for the fears aren't so productive—that the stock market will collapse and you'll lose your entire retirement fund, or that your electrical system will short and burn your house down—Leahy suggests other techniques. Since suppressing your fears doesn't work, one way to get some control over your worrying is to deliberately set aside a half hour or so each day to worry.

If fears come up during the day, jot them down on a notepad. At the end of the day, spend a half-hour focusing on them, and writing down any additional negative thoughts that come to mind. Don't try to address them—just brood. Leahy says that most people who do this for a few weeks quickly realize that their worries are repetitive—and boring! That makes it easier to ignore them during the day and to set them aside.

Since worrying is often a side effect of avoiding something difficult, Leahy also suggests that you get yourself in the habit of deliberately seeking out situations that make you uncomfortable. When you think over what's facing you, what makes you the most uncomfortable? Tackle that problem first, and your worries will begin to subside.

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