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16 May 2012

Learn to be a good worrier

Worry can be bad for you and can start to take over your life. Learn how to worry in a constructive manner.

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By Stacey Colino for Live Right Live Well

We all worry about something, and in these troubled economic times, worry may feel overwhelming and paralysing. It can even take over your life.

Studies show that chronic worry can lead to a host of health woes, including heartburn and other stomach distress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches, muscle pain, overeating or alcohol abuse. But the truth is, not all worry is bad. In fact, a “healthy” amount of worry can be a good thing - it’s what helps us adapt to changing circumstances and anticipate potential problems so that we can take constructive action to prevent bad results from occurring.

“Worry is like blood pressure: You need a certain level to live, but too high a level can hurt you,” notes psychiatrist Dr Edward M. Hallowell, author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition.

When does good worry turn bad? Worry becomes toxic when it results in excessive dwelling on things that are either not worth worrying about or things you can’t do anything about, or when it causes you to avoid dealing with your problems.

“With toxic worry, the rumination makes you more negative and unrealistic in your thinking, and it immobilises you,” explains Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University and author of Women Who Think Too Much.

The challenge, then, is to keep your worries in the healthy zone so that they help you adapt and cope without taking a toll on your health. In other words, the goal is to learn to “worry well” - as in, productively - and turn off the constant, unhelpful worries that can play endlessly in your mind. Here are five ways to do that:

1. Distract yourself. When the urge to obsess about your problems (or potential problems) kicks in, force yourself to stop by saying “stop” out loud, if need be. Do something pleasant and engrossing instead: read, sing, exercise with a friend, indulge in a hobby or watch a funny DVD. Doing something that takes your thoughts off your worries will break the grip that negative thinking has on your mind and help you gain a fresh perspective, explains Nolen-Hoeksema.

2. Set worry hours. Don’t worry spontaneously - establish a designated worry time, perhaps in the late afternoon or early evening (but not before bed). When the time arrives, write out a list of your primary worries, suggests Dr Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York and author of The Worry Cure. For each item, also indicate what you gain and what you lose by worrying about it. Spend 20 minutes focusing on your worries, then tell yourself you’re done for the day.

3. Give your worries a reality check. Ask yourself: How much will this issue matter in a week, a month, a year or five years? Is the situation really as dire or urgent as you’re telling yourself? “Most worries have an element of nearsightedness,” says Leahy. But taking a step back, considering the big picture and challenging the way you’re thinking can completely change your sense of what’s happening. By assessing the probability versus the possibility of your worst worries coming true, you’ll realise that no, you’re not destined to become homeless just because your investments lost some value. Then, you can cross that worry off your list. 

4. Swing into problem-solving mode. With issues that have potential long-term consequences, write down exactly what you think the problem is or how the situation needs to change, advises Nolen-Hoeksema. Next, rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you desire; for example, instead of worrying about getting laid off, ask yourself how you can make yourself indispensable to your company. Then get the facts about your situation (how is your company doing financially? how vulnerable are you?), brainstorm with a trusted friend what you can do to move toward your goal (maybe talk to your supervisor about how to solidify your position or volunteer for extra projects that need to be done), then formulate a concrete plan of action and give it a try. If it doesn’t work, revise your approach.

5. Know when to let go. When you’re dealing with an uncertain situation that you really have no control over, sometimes the best thing you can do is to simply let go. Imagine your worries being pumped into a helium-filled balloon, then release it into the air and watch it fly away. Take a shower and wash that worry right out of your head. Or write your worry on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it in the trash. Then set your sights on what you can control. If you’re worried about the results of some pending medical test, for example, focus your attention on seeing friends you adore or finishing a project at work.

Why waste your time and energy engaging in unhealthy, unproductive worry? Learn to worry well instead! “Your mind can only be in one place at a time,” explains Leahy, “so put it in a place that pays off.”

(Stacey Colino, 2010)

Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.

 
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