How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

I've wasted years freaking out about the future. But once I learned to just enjoy the moment, I realized life has a funny way of working itself out.
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A few years ago the newspaper I worked for changed owners. Rumors of a takeover had been floating around the office for months -- plenty of time for me to figure out that my job would be a goner as soon as the deal went through. If you're a book-page editor, and you suddenly work for a company that doesn't print book reviews, you don't need to be John Grisham to figure out how the story ends. A smarter person would have spent those months looking for another job. Not me. I simply hung on, living in a state of constant, low-grade dread, sure the other shoe was bound to drop but unable to predict when it would finally fall.

The merger went through, but, miraculously, my job wasn't on the hit list after all. I remained steeled for the inevitable, however. "I'm not planning beyond the next few weeks," I would tell colleagues. "It's just a matter of time before my whole section is killed."

The next year, same deal: months of hand-wringing and worries, followed by an 11th-hour reprieve. By the time the teetering economy finally tanked and my job was eliminated, I'd spent three years waiting to be fired. Instead of giving me plenty of time to prepare, persistent uncertainty had simply poisoned my last years in a job I loved.

Apart from getting the call on New Year's Day while I stood in line at Target (really, what sort of company issues pink slips on a national holiday?), here's the truly surprising thing about the whole ordeal: Getting fired wasn't so bad. I moped around for a bit, but I wasn't nearly as sad as I thought I would be, and I wasn't upset for long. In fact, I was astonished to discover, I was absolutely fine. My family had to tighten our belts, sure, but in most ways it was a gigantic, almost-physical relief just to have the whole question finally settled. Waiting for the other shoe to drop isn't an apt metaphor at all, it turns out. Chronic uncertainty is more like waiting for an SUV to fall on your head. But if you spend a long time waiting for an SUV to fall on your head, and what falls instead is just a shoe, think of the relief! Think of the rejoicing! Getting fired taught me that I cope with reality, even a very unhappy reality, far better than I cope with my own horrible imaginings.

It's Not as Bad as You Think

People routinely underestimate their ability to cope with setbacks and disappointments, experts say. One study asked people to estimate how bad they were going to feel if the things they were worrying about actually happened, and then they asked the same people how terrible it actually felt once they'd failed the test or broken up with the sweetheart or whatever. The vast majority coped much better than they thought they would. So real life is actually pretty doable for most of us. It's uncertainty that's the real downer.

Pamela Clements, an associate publisher for a Christian publishing company in Nashville, found this out recently when her daughter, a college sophomore, was trying to get into a sorority after not making the cut in her freshman year. Clements's daughter had done everything right this time, even raising her grade-point average, but with around 2,000 young women vying for limited slots, the outcome was anybody's guess. Clements was a basket case while she waited to hear, which she knew was nuts.

"In the past 10 years a lot of truly hard things happened in my life -- my mother and father died after serious illnesses, I lost my job, and my husband's business went into a slump right after we bought our dream house -- and I handled all that pretty well," she says. "But in retrospect, in all those cases something awful happened, and I dealt with my new reality as best I could." In this case, she realized, she was powerless to act or react. It was much less significant, but it meant a lot to her daughter and the uncertainty drove Clements crazy.

"I became irrational, completely unable to manage my emotions," she says. "It was such a shallow problem, but I wasn't handling it as well as I had dealt with real tragedies. I realized I was becoming a complete loon when I asked my prayer group to pray about it."

Do Something...Anything!

It's the lack of control that really gets to people, explains psychologist Susan J. Jeffers, PhD, author of Embracing Uncertainty. The answer? Take action. Research has shown that people are happier -- and even live longer -- when they believe they have at least some control over their own circumstances.

So if you're worried about being laid off, have an honest talk with your boss about your concerns. If you're waiting anxiously for medical test results, talk to someone who has come out on the other side of the same health concern. Doing something concrete to deal with your worry can give you a greater sense of power and control.

Admittedly, sometimes there's no clear map of action, and you might have to get creative. Seraine Berube of Port Orchard, Washington, whose husband, Tyler, is in the navy and currently assigned to an aircraft carrier deployed to the Middle East, had to do just that.

"As a military spouse, you live with constant uncertainty," says Berube. For national security reasons, Tyler can't tell her exactly where he is. And Berube doesn't know when he'll be back. She doesn't get to speak to him and she never knows when he'll get in touch. "You may get an e-mail, you may not," she says.

To cope, she talks to her family and to other wives with husbands on the same ship. But she and Tyler also came up with an action plan: They both keep a daily journal and plan to exchange them at the end of his deployment. "So much can happen in a year -- a lot changes -- and it's a way to catch up," Berube says. She finds that the act of writing in the journal eases her anxiety.

"I can't control when they're going to take Tyler away," she says. "But I can control my attitude about it and that's where the journal really helps."

Continued on page 2:  The Power of Distraction

 

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