Ever notice how aggravated you get when you go to check out at the grocery store, and... there's a line? And what about how even more aggravated you feel when you realize that you're standing in the wrong line, especially after you've done the exhaustive — customers x coupons x cashier energy — calculation of which line is most likely to move fastest? No matter how insignificant the activity is that you have to do next, you are incensed (and frustrated by your poor calculation skills) that you've had to waste even a moment of your time unnecessarily.
Look what happens, two minutes later when in the parking lot of the very same grocery store, your iPhone buzzes with a message from a frustrated client. You spend your entire drive home, your entire evening, and maybe even your sleep, reading into every nuance of his voice, the words he chose and take these as the starting gun to run through a myriad of horrible scenarios of what could happen: They could drop the account, we could be ruined, we could lose all of our connections, we could end up bankrupt.
Whoa there. Not so fast. What just happened? Has any of this happened? Is it likely to? Are there a ton of other possibilities that are a much surer bet than the catastrophic news feed running rip shod through your head?
No, none of these disasters are actually happening, though the knot in your stomach and the throbbing in your head suggest otherwise. It's just that you've been a victim of a hijack. Well, your rationality has. It's not an intruder exactly. It's your brain, your amygdala to be exact. As your built in 24/7 alarm system, it does one thing and one thing only: mobilizes you instantly to defend your survival. Which is great if the call you received was from a hungry tiger (or probably even a tiger who had just eaten), but not so much with a disgruntled client.
Oh, and not to keep score, but do we complain about the time we're clocking in when we're worrying? Not at all. We think we are doing something very important when we are closely tracking the anxious chatter in our minds and get frustrated when anyone (especially if they are cheerful) interrupts us. When it comes to worrying, we insist on waiting in the wrong line, the one that won't move, and we don't want to be disturbed. We want, it appears, to be miserable all by ourselves.
But how frustrated was the client, really? Was it a big deal or a little deal? Was he ready to bail or just asking you to change something? Was it manageable, solvable or disastrous? Who knows?
As creatures privileged to have not only a lightning fast emergency mode in the brain but a model that also includes a slower, highly-sophisticated thinking cap, perfectly capable of assessing actual risk, we are absolutely equipped to survey, analyze and problem solve -- in fact, it is our signature strength as a species. One hitch. It's not our first reaction; we could, however, choose to make it our second.
How do you not let your amygdala ruin your day? Turn off the alarms so you can think clearly. Rather than spending precious time being dragged around by your brain's first (and worst) take on the situation, get a different look. Take the elevator up to the executive suite in the brain and consult the expert — you, these strategies can help.
Spend Time With Reality: Change the Question
Why would you spend the majority of your time safeguarding against possibilities that are highly unlikely when there are more much probable outcomes that could really benefit from your attention? Value what's really valuable to you. Rather than jumping on every insignificant "could" that comes down the pike, recognize that on the other side of every could there's a much more likely "could not." Or, "probably won't." Instead of asking yourself: "What's the worst thing that's going to happen?" ask, "What do I really believe is most likely to happen here, and what can I do to make it work? Then spend your time increasing the likelihood that this outcome will occur.
Recognize and Resist the Power of Suggestion
Words like "fired," "ruined" or "broke" manipulate how we feel, but they can't make those things happen. Just like if someone mentions poison ivy and you feel itchy, you don't suddenly contract it, just because you thought it (and can almost feel it happening) — it's just the power of suggestion. But no matter how strong our reaction to an idea, it is in no way an accurate measure of the reality or likelihood of that outcome. Remember, you don't need to think through every worry, leave no stone unturned, in order to have a sense of security. Realize instead that you are no more vulnerable to these risks just because they got mentioned. Anxiety changes how we feel, but it can't change reality.
Make Worry Wait: Schedule Worry Time
For even more ways to show who's the boss, rather than jumping whenever worry strikes and letting it ruin any part of your day, have it make an appointment with you. Schedule a worry time each day and set a time limit on it of five minutes. If worry strikes before its scheduled time, just as you'd tell a child that it's not time for a lollipop at 10 a.m., tell your worry it's not time yet. If worry time arrives and you no longer feel that your worries are worth spending time on, all the better, skip the appointment. If you do use your worry time, don't just worry: For every "what if" you think of, name two to three "what else's" that you believe are more likely.
Next time your amygdala attacks, be prepared: not for the situation, because chances are you know what to do about that, but be prepared for your worry. Make a conscious choice to not go on the wild goose chase anxiety can launch, but know that you're better off without it. Instead, downgrade the importance of worry's messages and switch lines. The one without worry moves a lot faster.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2012. Previously published on Huffington Post.