Calling all worrywarts! How to fret less and live more

If you're looking for something to do, there's certainly a lot to worry about. Oil spills, religious intolerance, a crappy economy, and new health threats rear their heads every day. These are serious problems, worthy of concern and solutions. But no matter how many nights we lie awake staring at the ceiling, worry won't change anything. So why do we do it? And how can we stop? Here, what worry is and how to ease it out of your life.

ETYMOLOGY: "Worrying may shorten one's life, but not as quickly as it once did. The ancestor of our word, Old English wyrgan, meant 'to strangle.'" --The Free Dictionary

Chronic worry can feel like strangling or even drowning. If your worry feels this life-threatening, it could be part of a generalized anxiety disorder. A trip to the doctor to ask about anti-anxiety medications is in order.

WHERE IT COMES FROM: "Psychologists believe that worry, defined as a person's negative thoughts about a future event, evolved as a constructive problem-solving behavior." --Scientific American

In other words, it's natural to worry. It's a coping mechanism for the unknown. But when worry becomes your default way of dealing with an unknown situation, it's doing you more harm than good.

WHERE IT ALSO COMES FROM: "There is probably is a biological component to chronic worry, but there is also an early environment component. The feeling of safety that 'my mother will keep me safe' should be internalized and grow along with you so that, for the most part, you feel secure." --Sandy Taub, WebMD

Sometimes it feels good to know we didn't wholly bring something on ourselves. In this case, let's shovel some of the blame onto mom and dad.

HOW IT AFFECTS US: "Worriers are more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, fatigue, and aches and pains." --Robert L. Leahy, WebMD

According to Scientific American, chronic worriers also hinder their cognitive processing and can cause overstimulation of emotion- and fear-processing areas in the brain. That can lead to cardiovascular problems and screw up the body's ability to deal with stress. Not good.

WHY WE DO IT: "Chronic worriers operate under the misperception that their overthinking and attempts at controlling every situation allow them to problem-solve and plan for the future."

A-ha, so worry is another way that we try to wrestle control over the insanity that is the big, bad unknown world. But notice the world "misperception" above. It doesn't work. And here's the thing about habits: even if they're not helpful in any way, we often keep them up because they feel familiar. Like an old companion, we're used to them. But constant worry is a bad habit we can fall into, like smoking or going to bed without brushing our teeth. So what's the way to stop it?

HOW WE CAN STOP:

  • "Will my worrying affect the stock market? Will my worrying affect the weather? Will my worrying affect whether or not my child has an accident?" --Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Oprah.com

Start challenging your worried thoughts. When they pop up, ask yourself if worrying about the outcome will have any effect. Has worrying worked in the past? Think back over your life and your main concerns. What's your track record look like? How has worrying affected the events of your life?

  • Make a list of your worries, and then "Look at whether your worry is productive or unproductive," --Robert L. Leahy, WebMD

For the productive worries, make action items. For example, if you're worried about your job security, think of three things you can do in the workplace to ease that worry (get to work before your boss, take on extra responsibility, stop spending the afternoon on Facebook). If the worries are unproductive, challenge them, as above. Tell yourself, "I'm not going to worry about this right now," and move on.

  • Realize that worry isn't an effective motivator. "If it were, the millions who worry about their weight would all be slim." --Deepak Chopra, Huffington Post

If you're holding on to your worry because you think that it will somehow, someday, manifest as real change, it's time to let that go. Instead, put that worry down on your list and outline action items that will lead you to real change.

  • "Worriers tend to worry about things that even if they happen, they can handle it. Worriers are actually good at handling real problems." --Robert L. Leahy, WebMD

Ask yourself what's the worst thing that could happen. Usually, it's not as bad as you think, and even if a potential outcome is serious, remember that you can handle what comes your way. We're more resilient and competent that we give ourselves credit for. Furthermore, the "what if's" we worry about usually aren't nearly as bad as we feared. "What was I so worried about?" we end up asking ourselves. Try to remember that next time.

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