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Margaret woke to her alarm at 6 AM. She remembered that she had an early meeting and worried about the traffic and whether she would get to work on time.
At work, she worried about her daughter doing well in a test at school, whether any of her colleagues would invite her to join them at lunch, whether her boss would like the project that was due that day, whether she had enough gas to get home, whether she could afford a camp her daughter wanted to attend, whether a new co-worker thought she was attractive, whether it would rain at her daughter’s soccer game that Saturday ... .
As she laid her head on her pillow that night, she worried about whether she would get a good night’s sleep ... .
Are you anything like Margaret? A little bit like her? A whole lot like her? How many worrisome thoughts occupy your mind in a day? Are you just an occasional worrier? Or, do your friends tease you about being a “worrywart?”
How much happiness does worry steal from you every day? How much is it taking from your health? Experts tell us worry and anxiety is related to the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, compromised immune systems, and other health issues.
Want to do something positive to increase your happiness, confidence and health?
Worry is a focus on negative scenarios about your future. Negative thinking about what might happen produces depressed or anxious feelings.
We worry about all kinds of things. Tiny things: running out of paper clips, an unreturned smile, getting a parking place close to the door, etc. Big things: the outcome of treatment for a friend’s cancer, whether or not you will quality for a mortgage, your partner’s threat of divorce, etc.
All worry is not the same. There is Worthy Worry and Worthless Worry.
• Realistic Worry. This is concern about a bad outcome that has a high probability of happening. For example: a contagious illness that’s spreading among the students in your child’s school, a rash of car thefts in the parking lot at work, etc. You can usually do something about realistic worry: Check with the school or health department about the illness, purchase an anti-theft device for your car, etc. You can plan and take action to reduce realistic worry.
• Productive Worry: You get motivated to do something useful when productive worry bothers you.
Worry about whether you are promotable motivates you to learn new job skills; you quit smoking because of worry about your future health; worry about your grade in an impending test motivates you to study, etc.
• Unrealistic worry: Your worry is exaggerated concern for an improbable event. It’s possible that an asteroid could collide with earth and end life as we know it – but the chances are slim in our lifetime. NASA reports that no known asteroid poses a significant risk of impact with Earth over the next 100 years. The highest risk of impact for a known asteroid is a 1 in 714 chance of impact in 2185, meaning that the possibility that it could impact even then is less than 0.2 percent.
• Unproductive worry: If there is little or nothing we can do about an issue, worry is unproductive. Take the asteroid example. Scientists are tracking near earth objects in their orbits and watching for any threats. There is little that you or I can do to prevent such an event. Worrying about a collision seems unproductive.
Much of our worry is worthless; why do we worry so much?
• Human beings are able to anticipate the future. That capacity gives us the power to think ahead and plan carefully. It also creates the possibility of thinking obsessively and unproductively about unrealistic future scenarios – bringing ourselves unhappiness and damaging our health.
• Worry is a learned habit. Our parents, grandparents, neighbors, colleagues – just about everybody – worries. It isn’t surprising that we have joined them. In fact, some people think worry is a sign of a warm, caring person.
Identify the realistic and productive concerns that you have and do something about them. Notice the unrealistic and unproductive worries that handicap your life and kiss them “good-bye.”
How can you do that?
• Become aware of your worries. Several times during the day, jot down what you have worried about. After a week or so, look them over. How much did you worry? Most people are surprised by the frequency of worry. What did you worry about? Check out how much of what you worried about actually happened. In research, approximately 90% of what people had written down as worries (either worthy or worthless) never happened. Mark Twain is quoted as having said, “I am an old man. Throughout my life I have worried about many things. Most of which never happened.”
• Ask yourself important questions about your worries:
– Is this a realistic worry or an unrealistic worry? Am I wasting time and energy worrying about something that is just a remote possibility? Or, is this something that is probable and requires some planning and action?
– Is this a productive or an unproductive worry? Is this something I can influence or control. Or, is it out of my sphere of influence. If I can do something about it, then it requires planning and action – not more idle worry.
• Replace worrisome thinking with new thinking. How you think about things in your life directly affects your mood. Patterns of worried thinking create depression and anxiety. Notice the worried thinking you do. Catch yourself and replace those thoughts with positive and more useful thinking.
You catch yourself thinking: “I wonder if this is what my boss wants. If it isn’t, I probably won’t get a raise, maybe even get fired. And, then what will I do for money? How will I pay the rent?” You might choose to replace that with different thoughts: “I’ve checked with my boss and have all the guidance she can give me. I’ve worked hard at the project and know that there is a lot of good stuff in it. It is very unlikely that this one project will result in either a raise or a firing.” This is not Pollyannaish thinking. It is realistic, but more positive, thinking.
Changing patterns of worried thinking will not be easy. Practicing over a period of several months should produce new, more positive thought patterns – and positive feelings.
• Be clear about who “owns” particular problems. Helping other people is great. But, a habit of taking on everyone else’s worries can destroy your life and health.
• Consider your basic attitude toward life. If you think that everything should turn out just as you want it -- you will worry a lot about potential outcomes. Be more “philosophical” about life. Accept the fact that sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. Understand that you can control some things and are without influence on other things. You will worry a lot less.
• Keep your life filled with interesting, pleasant activities.
• Spend social time with positive people who relieve your worries and support your positive thinking.
• Maintain a healthy lifestyle: exercise, eat well, get adequate rest, etc.
• Pursue as simple and organized life as you can. There will be fewer “loose ends” to worry about.
• Maintain a practice of relaxation or meditation.
Whether you are just an occasional worrier or the classic “worrywart,” you can make things better for yourself. Happiness and better health await you. Challenge the worried part of yourself.
If worry or anxiety has become significantly distressing for you and is disrupting your life, be sure to see your physician and/or a provider of psychological services. Other treatments may be necessary to get your thinking and emotions where you want them.
© Glen Rediehs, Ph.D.
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