THE BLOG
11/13/2013 08:47 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

10 Ways to Worry Less

The definition of "worry" is to give way to anxiety or unease, to allow one's mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles. How many times have you heard the phrase, "You are going to worry yourself to death." Worry drains our energy, affects our health and leads us to be unproductive. So, here are 10 strategies to manage your worry and start living with less stress.

1) Change your perspective -- zoom out. When you are filled with worry, dread or anxiety, zoom out in your mind's eye. Imagine that you're floating away and viewing a stressful situation as a detached, outside observer, above the scene. From this larger viewpoint, ask yourself whether the situation is worth worrying about. Give yourself permission to gain some perspective. Another option is to zoom out in time. Imagine yourself one week, one month, one year, or even one decade from today. And ask how much the current situation will matter to you then. What we typically find is what worries us today will not matter next week.

2) Write about it. Writing is a great way to slow down racing thoughts. This is because the hand is slower than the mind, so putting your thoughts on paper slows them down. Writing is also a way to gain perspective. When your thoughts are in front of you on a piece of paper, they often are less stressful. I have clients do a "mental dump" at night, where they write down their worries or stresses so that the mind is cleared for meditation and rest. The act of tearing up or crumbling and throwing away the paper on which thoughts are written are a symbolic way of being rid of them.

3) Work hard. Worry and stress is often a signal to do something. Worry arises when there are deadlines and things that are building up, like the laundry. That means it is time to get it done. Sometimes all the stress management strategies in the world are no substitute for seeing a task to completion. Work can be healing in and of itself. The activity gives us something new to think about and helps us to feel in control. When you start crossing items off your to-do list, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and that you are getting somewhere, moving forward.

4) Say no. Worry and stress often result from our resistance to use a simple two-letter word -- no. The "yes" leads to over-committing, over-promising and sometimes even compromising our values and priorities. Being able to set boundaries and protect your time, talents and energy can work big miracles. It serves to set limits. It can remove projects and activities that serve no real purpose. It can keep persistent people from monopolizing your time. Most people will appreciate the honesty in a statement such as, "I need to pass on this one. My plate is full and I don't have the time for that right now."

5) Set priorities. Worry arises because we have unrealistic expectations about what we can do or have no sense of priority. You need to have a set of realistic expectations. When you schedule five hours of meetings, five hours of tasks, four hours of housework and four hours of TV and recreational time, you only have six hours to sleep. And that is only if the tasks take the amount of time you allotted. And they always take more. And this means you are always running behind. You can stop this form of self-sabotage by asking some questions: "What's top priority for today?" "What's the worst that could happen if this didn't get done?" "If I could get only three things done today, what would I choose them to be?" "What activities are most in line with my purpose and values?" This can help us see the forest through the trees.

6) Postpone worry. Instead of worrying now, put it off. Schedule a time to worry later, and tell yourself you'll get around to it if you feel like it when the time comes. You can even set a block of time on your schedule for worrying, like one hour on Fridays after work. This gives you permission to enjoy some peace of mind until your "worry time" comes around. What happens is that people discover that most of the time, the things we worry about never come to pass. By postponing worry, we save ourselves needless mental wear and tear. And we usually forget what we were so worried about after we put the thoughts on hold.

7) Say "Stop!" Sometimes the only way to stop the thoughts that race through your mind when you worry is to give them a direct order. Just say "stop." When you can, say the word out loud. If that's not possible, do it mentally or just move your lips without making a sound. Either way, notice what happens to your thoughts. An unusual response like this one can be just what you need to derail your train of worrisome thoughts. After you say "stop" and the worry ceases, actively fill your mind with positive self-talk and pleasant thoughts. Think about a happy moment or a tranquil place. And tell yourself that everything is okay, will be okay and that all is well in your world.

8) Imagine the worst and be okay with it. If your mind wants to imagine the worst, then let it. The trick is to be sure you take this line of thought to the absurd extreme. Example: "If I don't get this job, I'll run out of money, then I'll have to go live with my parents, then everyone will laugh at me, then my parents will kick me out, then I'll be homeless and live in a cardboard box on the street, then I'll starve or freeze to death." Once you imagine the very worst, you can backtrack and usually find a realistic scenario. From there you can start to devise workable plans to manage your current reality and solve the problem. When you find a reasonable level of concern, you can state the problem objectively and see new solutions.

9) Rehearse success. Instead of imagining how badly things might turn out, take a few minutes to mentally rehearse success. Picture yourself sailing through first dates, family events, evaluations, or any other events you typically dread. Hear yourself performing well at presentations or during meetings. Feel what it would be like to overcome obstacles, accomplish goals, and resolve conflict. Anticipating success can increase the chance that it will happen. It can increase your confidence, decrease your worry and set up an expectation that things will turn out well.

10) Focus on the external world. It's easy to live in our minds, trying to figure out why we feel the way we do. We can get so focused on ourselves that we become self-centered, forgetting that the outside world even exists. So instead of endlessly probing your own mind, take an active interest in the world around you. This means shifting your attention from "What am I feeling?" to "What needs doing?" Asking the latter question might lead you to organizing your desk, apologizing to a family member, finishing a project or doing volunteer work. Even simple shifts of attention -- noticing the colors in a room or the sounds on a nearby street -- can lower your stress level.

For more by Lisabeth Saunders Medlock, Ph.D., click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

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