Throughout my life, I have been a world-class worrier. My anxieties have ranged from small OCD-type behaviors -- returning home multiple times to make sure I locked the door or turned off the oven -- to the infinitely more fertile field of worrying about my children (waiting up with bated breath until I get a text saying they've arrived safely after they've driven a long distance or Facebook-stalking them if I haven't heard from them in a few days -- hell, a few hours sometimes). And I'm the worst kind of hypochondriac. I never go to the doctor if I feel bad. But, if a symptom persists, I will finally make an appointment four or five weeks later, hysterically convinced that if only I'd gone sooner, the doctor would have been able to cure my by-now terminal disease.
I've often thought that I worry because I believe it will somehow magically protect me and my loved ones -- if I agonize enough, I can forestall or fight even the most terrible calamity -- or that I'll be less upset if a disaster occurs. Of course, that's ridiculous. Worrying in advance has never eased the pain when something sad or tragic has occurred. And most of the time, the situations and catastrophes I'm anxious about don't happen, but things I never anticipate do.
Fundamentally, worrying doesn't work. It saps time and energy and very rarely has any connection with reality. And since time is an increasingly precious commodity to me, I've decided I'm just too old to waste it by letting my obsessions and phobias control me.
So if, like me, your life has been negatively affected by fear and anxiety, I think it's important to throw away the old playbook. I'm not just talking about obsessive behavior or phobias either. We are often tripped up by our insecurities, our concerns about what others will think and the limits we place upon ourselves. While I don't know that I'm an expert in this area, I've developed a few simple rules that I've found useful as I grapple with my own fears.
If you want to touch base with an old friend, but are afraid he or she won't be interested, push yourself to get over it. If you've always yearned to climb a mountain or ski, but are scared, don't be. It is generally the things we don't do that we regret, not the actions we actually take. Start slowly. Climb a small hill or go down the bunny slope as many times as you want or invite that friend to a play or a movie to give you something to talk about. The important thing is to change your patterns and initiate actions that will lead to a more confident, less anxious future, not one filled with regrets about what you should or could have done.
Set Achievable Goals
If you don't want to meet new people because you're afraid you don't look good, set simple attainable goals, like losing just one pound or walking 2500 or 5000 steps a day or learning how to do a push-up. If you're worried people won't be interested in what you have to say or that you've become stagnant, make it a goal to learn about a new topic, expand upon an existing interest or simply read a newspaper every day. If you're afraid to travel alone, but have no one to go with, research ways to travel with a group of strangers, such as a Road Scholar trip, and commit to taking that trip. Don't be discouraged if you don't accomplish everything, but hold yourself accountable for setting and achieving goals.
Think Long Term
One of the problems with fears and phobias is that your life becomes more constricted and limited than it should be, and you get into the habit of expecting less. Don't fall into that trap. No matter what your age, don't be afraid to dream big and make long-term plans. Have you always wanted to produce a show? Offer to help your local theater group and see where that takes you. Do you have an idea for a business? Write out a proposal, find a local small business group and start making contacts. You may not always be able to achieve your long-term goals, but your life will be enriched immeasurably if you think big.
For many of us, it's not easy to worry less or eliminate phobias. It requires changing our mindsets or even therapy. But it's definitely worth it. So talk to friends, find a support group or speak to your doctor, if need be. I, for one, have always been scared of flying, and I've missed out on seeing so many intriguing places. This summer, though, I blocked out some time, got a prescription for Xanax, and forced myself to take a flight to England. It was a wonderful trip, filled with things I love: theater, art, medieval churches and simply walking through unfamiliar towns and vistas. But the best part was that I went, not exactly unafraid, but determined.
For those of us over 50, probably the main thing to worry about is that our health will deteriorate before we do everything we'd like to do. So, while you probably won't find me on a plane to China anytime soon, I'm going to try to give my children a little more space, not assume that every ingrown toenail is a flesh-eating bacteria and not look back when I leave my house.
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