THE BLOG
08/13/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

2 Ways to Stop Worry from Stealing Your Dreams

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"What if I fail?" "What will others think?" "It's too risky." "I'm scared."

Have you ever felt this way? I certainly have.

It's called worry. Some might call it fear or perhaps, pessimism. Whatever you call it, this difficult emotion keeps us stuck, far away from what we can achieve or who we can become.

In small doses, of course, worry is helpful. It tells us to take precautions (wear a helmet) and prepares us for action (back away slowly from the snarling dog).

But toxic worry is different. It's caused by ongoing anxiety about the future. We let our thoughts carry us away with what might happen; we fixate on perceived threats. We'll even come up with "evidence" to support our worries -- "remember what happened last time."

Toxic worry steals our attention and takes over our behavior. It robs us of joy and satisfaction and keeps us from doing great things.

The usual way we try to handle worry is to suppress or ignore it. "Suck it up. Be strong. Worrying is for weak people," we tell ourselves.

If you've tried this, you know it doesn't work, at least not in the long run.

Playing whack-a-mole with worry creates a vicious cycle. At some point, your arm gets tired, worry keeps popping back up, and in the meantime, you miss out on life.

A different approach is needed.

Here are two to try.

Be mindful.
The goal here is to reduce the toxic effects of worry rather than eliminate its causes. Anxiety can certainly ebb away over time as we become more adept and confident in our abilities. But when we fixate on eliminating worry... well, that's all we think about, which inadvertently allows anxiety to gain an even tighter grip on us.

So instead of trying to eliminate worrying thoughts, focus your attention on the specific tasks you need to accomplish in order to achieve the goal you desire.

This is the essence of mindfulness -- present, nonjudgmental attentiveness focused on a particular goal, all the while, allowing worrisome thoughts to come and go as they please. Research shows this is a far more effective way to reduce anxiety and boost performance than trying to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings directly.

Here is how it works:

Next time you face a panic-inducing situation (public speaking does it for most), acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. Remind yourself that these are normal. It's okay to feel nervous.

The trick though is not to judge them or ruminate over them.

For example, say to yourself, "It is normal to worry but my fears are not facts. They are just ideas bouncing around in my head. They do not define me."

At this point, set them aside and focus on what you need to do to succeed in your present task.

Whether you are preparing to sink a challenging putt, lead a meeting, or close an important deal, purposefully attending to the present moment leaves worry on the sidelines and not the in the director's seat.

Each time worry pops back in your mind, repeat the process above -- acknowledge, let go, refocus, perform.

Breathe.
Being mindful is a practice of non-judgmental, internal awareness and laser sharp focus.

No doubt, these are difficult habits to develop. One of the most straightforward ways to begin cultivating present-awareness is conscious breathing -- inhaling and exhaling deeply and consistently for a specific period of time and focusing on the resulting moment-to-moment sensations.

Here's one way to do it:

Start by doing 4x4s -- inhale and exhale, each for four seconds. Practice for four minutes and repeat four times a day. Throughout the process, intentionally observe your breathing. You can do variations of this anywhere -- standing in line, driving through traffic, or before a big event. Mindful breathing can also have a calming effect. And with the breath, it is easy to tell when you are on or off focus, thus it is a simple way to help you develop the ability to set aside distracting thoughts (such as worry) and focus on a specific task.

We are always going to worry. It's natural. The question is: will we allow it to control our lives?

By cultivating a daily mindfulness practice, we can substantially reduce the influence of toxic worry in our lives. With the clarity gained by living in the present, we are able to work alongside of worry to reach our full potential -- a creative force to be reckoned with.

I'd love to hear how you move beyond worry in the pursuit of your dreams. Leave a comment or email me at frank [at] frankniles.com.

Dr. Frank Niles is a social scientist, adventure athlete, coach, and speaker. Learn more about Frank at frankniles.com and scholarexecutive.com. Contact Frank at frank [at] frankniles.com.