How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

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The Power of Distraction

Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to your health, endlessly googling the same symptoms while you're waiting for those test results might just reinforce anxiety. You're not necessarily getting new information; you're just being pummeled by the same uncertainties. Instead of looping through worst-case scenarios, your best course of action may be to look for a way to distract yourself and practice active denial. Read a novel. Go to the movies. Play Words with Friends. Take a walk beside a river. Focus on the present. Make a point of seeing the beauty in small things.

Leigh Fortson, a three-time cancer survivor and author of Embrace, Release, Heal, says she once found herself admiring a stop sign. "It sounds ridiculous, I know," she says, "but I was truly wowed by the brilliant red background in juxtaposition to the white letters. The shape is also cool." When you surround yourself with loved ones and keep your mind trained on the good stuff, uncertainty isn't as scary, Fortson says. "It's livable. I feel more comfortable, even though I don't know all the answers."

If you find the idea of using these kinds of mindfulness techniques a little too New Agey, prayer works well, too. Not religious? You still have options -- the goal here is only to seek out an activity so absorbing that you are transported out of an awareness of time. "There's a technique for everyone, whether it's walking in nature, sitting in a lotus position, listening to music, or taking up embroidery," says Susan Smalley, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Fully Present.

And you may not want to hear this for the ten billionth time, but exercise is your friend. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of Emotional Freedom, says that working up a sweat is one of the best ways to help you keep your equilibrium.

Fear Is Your Real Enemy

As I discovered, uncertainty can actually feel worse than the bad outcome you're afraid of. Two studies by Sarah A. Burgard, PhD, associate professor of sociology and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, found that people whose jobs are chronically insecure report significantly higher rates of depression, and poorer health, than those who had actually lost their jobs.

Apparently uncertainty itself is so hard to bear that it makes people assume the worst. According to psychologist Robert L. Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure, many people tend to equate uncertainty with a negative outcome, even when the likelihood of a bad result isn't very high. And don't forget that by definition, uncertainty means you don't know how something will turn out, which means that a happy outcome is just as possible as an unhappy one. In one university study, respondents were actually wrong 85 percent of the time when they predicted that some unresolved issue in their life would turn out badly.

Think of it: All that worry, for absolutely nothing. Sometimes the thing we dread turns out to be just the kick in the pants we need to move in a new and even more fulfilling direction. As for me, with all those newspaper deadlines out of the way, I had time to think deliberately about what I really wanted to do with the next stage of my professional life. Within three months, in fact, I had found a job, and it was one I never would have heard about -- or been considered for -- if I'd still been at the newspaper.

Today I work full-time for a nonprofit arts agency in a job that's perfect for me. It's challenging, fascinating work that uses my education and experience. There's only one hitch: It's a grant-funded position so there's no way to know from one year to the next whether the grant will be renewed. In other words, my professional future has been uncertain since the day I took the job.

And I'm okay with that. I've come to realize that I've made a lot of "permanent" plans in my life that didn't last as long as this temporary assignment. Plus I've learned my lesson. I can't control whether I'll still have this job in a year, but my résumé is up to date and I have some ideas about what my next step might be if worse comes to worst. Meanwhile, I'm doing something I love, and that's enough for now.

Instead of viewing the unknown as a potential trap ("What bad thing might happen to me?"), I now try to think of uncertainty as part of what keeps life exciting. As Jeffers puts it, "Do you really want to ruin the challenge of it all, the surprise around the corner and the true adventure of not knowing?"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2013.

 

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