“You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.”
— Pat Schroeder, first Colorado woman elected to American Congress
“You must be a hit at the psychic fairs,” he said to Christine.
“Psychic fairs?” she replied. “Why would you say that?”
“Do you fancy yourself a mind reader or a fortune teller?”
Christine was getting annoyed. She had joined a couple colleagues for lunch and the topic had turned to work. Christine had lamented that she was never going to get the raise she wanted or the promotion she deserved. When pushed for reasons, she leaned forward and lowered her voice. Though he had never commented, she just knew the boss didn’t like her and the supervisor had been awfully quiet lately. That could mean only one thing: termination.
The approach notwithstanding, Christine’s colleague was calling attention to a couple tactics often utilized by the chronic worrier: jumping to conclusions and catastrophizing.
When we jump to conclusions, we make interpretations without evidence. We act like a mind reader, assuming to know precisely what another person is thinking. When we catastrophize, we expect the worst to happen and what is expected tends to be realized.
Worry can be helpful when it prompts us to take action and solve a problem.
When worry is creating a tremendous amount of anxiety and we are plagued with doubt and fear, it can be debilitating. Worry can sap our energy, send our anxiety levels soaring and — if left unchecked — damage our self-esteem. Worry can become a mental habit and a hard one to kick.
Worry has kept me up at night and has made me tense and edgy during the day. And like many of you, I’ve had a difficult time breaking free from the worry cycle. At one point in my life, I was feeling so overwhelmed with anxiety that I began to worry about worrying. I became convinced that my chronic worrying was damaging my physical and emotional health. I desperately wanted to find a better way of coping with worrisome thoughts before it was too late.
If you’re like most chronic worriers, anxious thoughts can feel uncontrollable. And you’ve doubtless tried lots of things like distracting yourself, reasoning with your worries or trying to think positive, but nothing seems to work.
Telling yourself to stop worrying doesn’t work for long. Distracting yourself can suppress anxious thoughts for a moment, but can’t banish them for good. In fact, trying to do so often makes them stronger and more persistent. Dr. Robert L. Leahy is one of North America’s leading authorities on cognitive therapy and author of the best seller, The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You.
In his book, Leahy provides a number of strategies for breaking the worry cycle. Leahy notes that it’s tough to be productive in your daily life when anxiety and worry are dominating your thoughts. One strategy Leahy recommends is creating a worry period. Rather than trying to stop or get rid of an anxious thought, he suggests giving yourself permission to have it but to postpone thinking about it until a later time.
Leahy suggests you set a time and place for worry. One example might be to allow yourself to worry in the living room of your home between 5 and 5:20 p.m. each day — early enough that it won’t affect your sleep. During your worry time, worry about whatever’s on your mind. The rest of the day, however, is a worry-free zone.
Another strategy is to create a worry list. Leahy proposes keeping a pen and note pad nearby and whenever an anxious thought enters your mind, write it down. Postpone worrying about the item until your worry time — reminding yourself that you’ll have time to literally worry about it later.
I actually tried this exercise and found that later, many of the items didn’t seem nearly as important as they had earlier in the day.
Postponing worry is an effective way to break the habit of dwelling on anxious thoughts in the moment. That alone can be highly effective.
Another strategy Leahy recommends is asking yourself if the problem is solvable. In his book, Leahy shares research that suggests while we worry, we feel temporarily less anxious. Running over the problem distracts us from our emotions and helps us feel as though we’re accomplishing something.
Here’s the catch, though: worrying and problem-solving are two vastly different things. Problem-solving involves evaluating a situation, coming up with steps to resolve it and putting a plan into action. Worrying, on the other hand, rarely leads to solutions.
For this strategy to work, you must determine the difference between solvable and unsolvable worries. Is the issue real or imaginary? If you are worried about your bills, you could call your creditors or speak to a financial advisor and work out a flexible repayment plan.
If your worry is “What if I get cancer someday?” or “What if my kids get into an accident?” then there is no simple resolution.
Unproductive, unsolvable worries are those for which there is no corresponding action. If the worry is solvable, then start brainstorming solutions.
Other suggestions from Leahy include:
l accepting uncertainty and unpredictability as natural aspects of living;
l challenging anxious thoughts by raising awareness and investigating beliefs;
l practising mindfulness and watching for your worry triggers;
l determining your worry profile and changing your patterns of worry;
l stopping the most common “safety” behaviours that only make things worse.
There’s a wonderful quote by American best-selling author Dan Zadra that reads, “Worry is a misuse of imagination.” I try to remember it whenever I start spiralling downward.
Whether you’re a chronic worrier or just an occasional ruminator, it’s time to stop worrying and start living.
For me, it began and continues with a focus on self-esteem building. My belief is if we can reach the point where we feel worthy, deserving and capable, there will be far less for each of us to worry about — and won’t that be an enlightening experience.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extreme esteem.ca.