While a healthy level of worry can help us perform efficiently at work, anticipate dangers, and learn from past errors, excessive worry can make an otherwise sane person seem crazy, devoid of sound judgment, peace of mind and happiness. So how do you curb the anxiety associated with stress and toxic worry?
First, it helps to understand what I call the basic equation of worry. This is a good way to conceptualize where toxic worry comes from:
Heightened Vulnerability + Lack of Control = Toxic Worry
The more vulnerable you feel (regardless of how vulnerable you are) and the less control you feel you have (regardless of how much control you actually have), the more toxic your worrying will become. Therefore, any steps you can take to reduce your feelings of vulnerability and/or increase your feelings of control will serve to reduce your feelings of toxic worry.
But how do you stay out of the paralyzing grip of toxic worry? If you're walking through a minefield, how do you not feel so afraid that you can't take another step? You need a plan. When you have a plan, you can turn to the plan for guidance, which immediately makes you feel as if you are less vulnerable and more in control, whether you are or not. So whether the danger you perceive stems from the poor economy, a concern about your children, or a mole on your forearm that you think might be melanoma, you need a method to keep your fear from running wild so you can systematically dismantle the problem and take control.
The following is a 10-step plan to help you put your toxic worry into perspective:
Talk to someone you trust -- a friend, spouse, colleague or relative. Call them on the phone or speak to them in person. You often find solutions when you talk it out with someone. The mere fact of putting it into words takes it out of the threatening realm of the imagination and puts it into some concrete, manageable form. By far, the most potent anti-worry device we have is contact with each other.
The toxic part of worry is usually based upon lack of information or wrong information. In the absence of facts, your imagination rushes in and amplifies the danger into a catastrophe, always envisioning the worst. Facts short-circuit this process. In the short run, the facts can intensify your worrying, but in the long run you will be much better off with the facts than without them. If you are afraid to get the facts, you should go back to step one and not worry alone. Talk to someone. Doing this will probably make you feel strong enough to get the facts.
Identify all the things you worry about and separate out the "toxic to your health" worry from "good" worry. Good worry amounts to planning and problem solving. Toxic worry is unnecessary, repetitive, unproductive, paralyzing and life-defeating.
When you feel anxious thoughts emerging, repeat the mantra, "I'll fix what I can, and then I'll put the rest out of my mind." When you let go of your worry, you free up mental energy that will help you solve whatever problems you are dealing with.
Get enough sleep. Eat a balanced diet and do not abuse alcohol or other substances as a means of controlling your worrying. Get plenty of vigorous exercise. Exercise can serve as an anti-anxiety agent and an antidepressant. Pray or meditate: both prayer and meditation calm the troubled mind and soul. Get regular doses of positive human contact. In other words, try as much as you can to be around people who are good to you and not be around people who are not.
Many everyday worries are directly related to disorganization: What have I forgotten? Will I get there in time? Why didn't I bring that brochure with me? Lists, reminders, a daily schedule, a basket next to the front door where you always put your car keys so you don't start off your day with a frantic search for your keys -- these concrete bits of structure can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend each day in useless or destructive worry. People put off setting up these structures because setting them up seems like an onerous task; however, worrying or flubbing up are more onerous still!
Regain perspective. Share your worries with someone who should know if what you are worrying about makes sense or if you have exaggerated it. So many of our problems are the result of overactive imaginations.
One of the best ways of dealing with worry, or any stress in life, is to use humor. Make friends with amusing people, watch a Marx brothers movie, tune into Comedy Central or a humorous sitcom. Laugh as much as you can. Humor restores perspective; toxic worry almost always entails a loss of perspective.
We are reminded so often of what is bad, we have to look for what is good. Take an inventory every day of what is good. Big things -- children, friends, health, a mate -- and little things -- a pair of shoes you like, a door that closes without squeaking, a tuna fish sandwich that tastes good.
In as many ways as you can -- with family, friends, organizations or nature. The human connection is essential, like vitamin C -- as in "Vitamin Connect." It fortifies us and gives us courage. Sometimes people don't reach out because they think no one can help. So reach out, take up a hobby that could get you involved in a local group -- bird-watching, cycling, walking, etc. -- or consider volunteering for an organization that you care about.
*Adapted from WORRY: Controlling It and using It Wisely, Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., Pantheon Books, 1997
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