Strategies to Stop Worrying
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Strategies to Stop Worrying

Spending too much time thinking about all the things that could go wrong in your life? We've got just three things to say: You're not alone. It's not so bad. And you can fix it.

Worrywart

I'm a little anxious about admitting this, but here goes: I'm a world-class worrier. Everything from cellulite to salmonella has me in a sweat. If family or friends are flying, I can't relax until the plane lands. The waiting room in a doctor's office? Anxiety Central. And don't even get me started on the economy. I worry I'll lose my job, or my husband will lose his, and our depleted 401(k) gives me nightmares.

There's a psychological label for this kind of constant fretting: generalized anxiety disorder. Women are diagnosed with it more often than men, says psychologist Thomas Borkovec, PhD, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a leading authority in the field. "People with GAD spend anywhere from five percent of their time to more than half the day working out solutions to problems that may or may not exist," he says. That's me!

But even though my level of worry sometimes borders on the pathological, I am definitely not alone. "I sometimes joke that the disorder is misnamed," Dr. Borkovec says. "It should be called severe normality, because we all experience it sometime or other."

Not only am I not unique, I'm part of a stressed-out sisterhood. As women, we're more likely than men to worry that something bad that happened in the past might happen again in the future, according to a 2007 study led by psychologist Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, at the University of California, Davis. That's me, for sure. I remember getting lost in the pitch-dark while driving to a friend's house and becoming frantic as I went miles out of the way. Now I'm nervous each time we make plans to meet at her home. I know the route well at this point, yet I still take anxiety along for the ride.

Women do report higher levels of worry than men, Dr. Borkovec says -- though it could just be that the guys aren't admitting it. "We take these gender differences with a grain of salt because women tend to be more honest in expressing their feelings than men are." Meanwhile, it turns out that some of us are born with an inclination to wring our hands. A 2007 Yale University study identified a gene mutation that can predict a tendency to ruminate. It was instantly dubbed "the worry gene."

The Upside

There is an upside to all this angst, however. Think about it: Without a certain amount of hand-wringing about your health, would you really make your annual appointment for a mammogram, or go to the gym, or wear a seat belt? "Good worry is like a smoke detector that nature has built into our brains," explains psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition. "It alerts us to danger. It also helps you solve problems." If you're worried about bouncing checks, you'll be more likely to set up a cash reserve.

We're actually wired for "good worry" thanks to a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which helps us predict, and thus avoid, danger. So, when you're about to buy an entire case of warehouse-store cookies because they're on sale and that little voice inside your head says, Don't do it, you'll just eat them all, it's probably a good idea to listen.

But while good worry has its benefits, fretting over future problems -- your husband's car might crash, your child might get seriously ill -- is most often a complete waste of energy. Eighty-five percent of the time people's worst fears never materialize, according to a study published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

Meanwhile, no one needs to tell nervous Nellies like me that anxiety can be incredibly destructive. Common among worriers: restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, high blood pressure, stomach problems, rashes, heart disease, headaches, and insomnia. "It takes practice and patience to change worry patterns," points out psychologist Robert Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure. "But it ultimately boils down to readjusting how you think about the world, and believing that tomorrow is more likely to bring you something wonderful than something frightening." How to put worry behind you? Don't angst over it! If one strategy doesn't work, simply try another.

Strategies to Help You Worry Less

  • Share your fears. "When you keep your concerns to yourself, they can grow out of proportion," Dr. Hallowell explains. Run your worries by someone you trust and you open yourself up to a different perspective.
  • Keep a freak-out diary. "Notice each time you're worrying, write it down and identify what you're afraid of, as well as the outcome you envision," says Dr. Borkovec. Most of the time events play out much better than expected. But if they don't, you'll have the opportunity to examine how well you coped. "Ninety-five percent of the time worriers are impressed with their ability to face challenges," he says.
  • Set up a worry-free zone. This is another one of Dr. Borkovec's techniques. He suggests choosing a time during the day -- lunchtime, say -- and designating it as totally worry-free. If you notice any worry during that time, set it aside for later. Over time you can add more hours to your stress-free zone. A related technique is to choose one specific time to worry -- from 5 to 5:30 p.m., for example.
  • Get the facts. Information can ward off panic. If you're nervous about a mole on your forearm, make an appointment to see a dermatologist. It helps to recognize when you're making judgments based on simply worry, not fact, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a psychology professor at Yale University and author of Women Who Think Too Much. Getting as many of the real facts as you can calms you down. One study found that knowing more details about upcoming surgery reduced patients' anxiety.
  • Make a plan. If past failures keep you up at night, try to let them go. "Whatever happened in the past isn't going to change no matter how much you worry about it. Accept it and move on by coming up with a plan to prevent it from happening again," suggests Dr. Borkovec. This way you assume control over the situation. The more you put yourself in control, the less you'll fruitlessly mull over the what-ifs.
  • Breathe deeply. Since worriers have a hard time staying in the here and now, take deep breaths to plant yourself in the present. Inhale slowly and deeply into your abdomen (not your chest), then focus on exhaling. You can use this technique anywhere to remain calm. Studies show that deep breathing lowers blood pressure and slows down your heart rate.
  • Visualize a happy outcome. If you become anxious while thinking about your yearly mammogram, picture the technician walking into the waiting room to tell you everything is fine. You can dissolve your anxiety just by holding this scenario in your mind's eye.
  • Gaze into a crystal ball. If you insist on looking into the future, Dr. Leahy suggests that you travel through an imaginary time machine and ask yourself: "How will I feel one month after this happens -- if it happens?" Most worriers who take the mental journey end up saying, "I can't remember what I was even worried about."

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.

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