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Robert Leahy, Ph.D.

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Are You a Worrier? 5 Tips to Turn Worry on Its Head

Posted: 02/18/11 11:57 AM ET

Worry has a mind of its own.

A negative thought pops into your head, you pay attention to it, you feel you need the answer right now, you think you have a responsibility to do something about it and you can't do anything else until you finally answer the thought that just showed up.

You have been hijacked by your worries.

Does any of this sound familiar?

You are lying in bed trying to fall asleep and you start thinking, "What if I don't get any sleep? I won't be able to function tomorrow. I'll look horrible." Or you wake up in the middle of the night and you start thinking, "Will I ever find the love of my dreams?" You think, at that moment, "I need to know right now." And the love of your dreams is not lying next to you.

Or you are at work and you start to worry, "I think my boss is annoyed with me. What if she fires me? Would I ever be able to get a job?" Or, as you look at yourself in the mirror in the bathroom you notice a slight blemish and you begin to worry, "Could this be skin cancer?"

Worry is epidemic. 38 percent of people say they worry every day. People who are chronic worriers often say, "I've been a worrier all my life." People in their mid-seventies who worry daily have been worriers for over 35 years. Worry persists, eats away at you, gives you indigestion, fatigue, aches and pains, affects your relationships, and eventually leads to depression. People often get well-meaning, but useless advice, such as, "Try to think positively. Believe in yourself. Snap out of it. Don't punish yourself with your worries." None of this works.

The good news is that over the last 10 years there have been major advances using cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat worry. With these techniques you can start helping yourself right now.

First, let's look at what you are trying to accomplish with your worry so you can figure out if it's really worth it. Worry is a strategy. Let's say you are confronted with some possibly unpleasant thoughts -- such as, "I might get fired" or "Could I have a dreaded disease?" You might activate a string of negative, worrisome thoughts in order to accomplish certain goals. What are these goals? Well, you might think that if you worry a lot you will be able to catch things before they get out of hand. Or you might think you will be able to eliminate uncertainty and finally get the answer. Or you might think you won't be surprised. Worry is your strategy. Now, there is some rationale here. It might be useful to accomplish these goals. It might be useful to know if you are getting fired, have a dreaded disease, or if you will succeed in the talk you are giving. But will worry really give you the answer? Or are you chasing after the wind? So, the first thing to ask yourself is, "What do I hope to accomplish with my worry? How will it help me?"

Second, ask yourself if your worry is productive -- that is, will it lead to solving the problem today -- or is it unproductive? For example, if I have to give a talk next week, I can worry about whether I know what I am going to talk about, do I have good slides, what will people think? But the only productive action I can take today is to get my slides together. "Productive worry" leads to a to-do list today. What can I do today that will really make progress on the problem? Get my slides together. All the other worry -- for example, "What will people think?" -- is unproductive because I can't do anything about it. So, I will just have to let it go. You can make worry productive by actually solving a problem today. And you can let go of unproductive worry by realizing that worrying right now is useless and only makes matters worse. Is your worry productive or unproductive?

Third, you need to accept certain limitations. You may need to accept uncertainty, imperfection, the possibility of a bad outcome, and lack of some control. Let it go to let me live. I will never have certainty, never have complete control, never be perfect. That's OK. I am human. I don't need certainty or complete control. How do I know? Because every day I live with uncertainty and lack of some control. And the world hasn't ended. One way of practicing uncertainty is to bore yourself with your worries. For example, let's say you are worried you might lose your job. You've decided there is nothing that you can do right now that will solve the problem, but the worries keep coming back. One technique that is useful for many people is to repeat the negative worry hundreds of times: "It's possible I can get fired." Repeating this thought for 20 minutes, slowly, focusing on the words can eventually lead to getting incredibly bored with your worry. I call this "The Boredom Technique."

Fourth, set aside worry time. Yes, this sounds like a crazy idea to a lot of people, but you can decide to set aside some time every day when you worry. Take 15 minutes -- say, at 4:30 in the afternoon. If you have a worry at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., set it aside to your worry time. You will find that by the time you get to 4:30 most of these worries are meaningless. Which means, of course, when you initially had the worry there was no urgency to find an answer. Setting things aside allows you to let it go.

Finally, focus on what you can control. For example, I can't control how people will respond to my talk next week. But I can control if I work on something now, or take my dog for a walk, or listen to some music, or read an article, or talk to someone I care about. If you give up on trying to control what you cannot control and get involved in something you can actually do now, you let go of a future that may never really happen and live your life in the present moment. Ironically, in one study they found that 85 percent of the things that people worried about had a positive outcome.

To learn more about strategies to handle your worry see my book, "The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You."

 
 
 

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