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What, Me Worry? Never Again

The fears that grip us are like telemarketers who interrupt our dinner The next time worry calls, learn not to answer the phone.


by Sarah Mahoney

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Everyone worries now and then. But some of us—about 18 percent or 40 million Americans—elevate worry to an art form, spinning out elaborate worst-case scenarios, often at 3:00 am. Whether our fears are reasonable (“What if my kid can't find a job after college?”) or nuts (“What if I get attacked by a drone?”), they can seem impossible to shake. Because worriers tend to be overcautious, experts say, they often regard themselves as cowardly. Researchers at Duke University and the National Institutes of Health are even working on a “courage pill,” which reduces anxiety in mice. But there’s no need to wait until bravery comes in a bottle: Using just a few techniques, many people can increase their courage quotient by facing down fears and anxiety.

The first step is acknowledging that your fear is excessive. Most people have negative thoughts and concerns about the future, explains psychologist Robert Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure. “They just don’t focus on them. But people who worry are constantly looking for threats of anything that can go wrong, and then they think that they have to focus on it.” He likens the fears that grip hardcore worriers to annoying telemarketers who call in the middle of dinner. “Worriers think they have to have a conversation with their fears. Nonworriers just don’t answer the phone.” While most people will readily admit that their fears never come to pass, Leahy can actually quantify that. “Typically, 85 percent of the things people worry about have a neutral or positive outcome,” he says. And the remaining 15 percent? “Of those, 78 percent of people say, `Well, things didn’t work out, but I handled it pretty well.’”

One Woman’s Quest for Calm

The latter experience is what happened to Barbara Kriss. The 64-year-old, who lives in Newton, Massachusetts, describes herself as “fairly high anxiety,” and spent her 20s, 30s and 40s entertaining all kinds of fear, about her kids, her husband and her health. “We’d go on a road trip and my first thought was always, “What if we get in an accident?’” Then in 2003, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “After all those years of worrying something bad was going to happen, something bad was happening,” she recalls. “You’d think my worry would have taken off. But it didn’t.” That’s because Kriss immersed herself in research about cancer while she underwent treatment. “I was really proud of myself. I rose to the occasion.”

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Three years later, when she was diagnosed with cancer in her other breast, she used humor to stay sane. “I joked with my doctor. I joked with my friends. Being positive made me feel more positive. I tried hard to focus on how fortunate I felt, not my worries about the outcome.” But when her husband was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2007, her anxiety shot to new levels, and her previous coping tools didn’t work. “At least with my illness, I had some kind of control. But in this case, all the decisions were his. I knew I had to get busy or I would fall apart.” So for the next few months, she threw herself into starting, an organization and website for women like her, who have chosen not to have reconstructive surgery after breast cancer treatment: “I channeled my worrying into something useful.” Thanks to her strategies, Kriss says she keeps her worries in check by nipping rumination in the bud: “If I catch myself turning a worry over and over, I take an action to resolve it. I’ve started a blog, where I write about what’s worrying me. And I use good old escapism, too—a phone call to a friend, a favorite TV show, or a good book.” The biggest release of all? She’s stopped worrying about worrying. “Yes, I have anxiety, but it also makes me vigilant and high energy. At some point, I’ve just accepted this as part of who I am.”

Befriending Your Fears To Banish Them

In discovering her own methods to reduce anxiety, Kriss is a relatively rare bird. Most of us need expert help. Leahy, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, a short-term approach proven to be extremely effective in treating anxiety, offers his advice for cutting worry down to size.

Step one is to take a fresh look at the things that make you anxious. Worriers benefit a lot by asking what they might gain from any specific fear, Leahy says. If, for example, you’re concerned that a professional speech will go badly, worry can motivate you to practice, run a draft by colleagues or make a backup copy of the presentation. “That’s productive worry,” Leahy says. “But when the worries are about things you can’t control--what if people hate what I say? What if there’s a citywide power outage that day?--that’s unproductive.”

Next, set aside a time each day to worry. That way, when a random concern nags at you, you can say, “Not now. I’ll think about it between 4:30 and 5, my designated worry period.” During that time, work through your list of concerns. What are the best possible outcomes? The worst? The most likely? To triumph over really troublesome fears, Leahy recommends something he calls the boredom technique.

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Repeat the worry—let’s say, “I might get audited by the IRS”--over and over for 20 minutes. “Initially, your anxiety, the physical sensation of worry, will go up. But as you keep repeating it, you become bored. Because you’ve invited the fear in instead of trying to banish it, you empty it of all its emotional content.” It’s a technique that Leahy says works as well on big-problem worries (“What if my unemployed brother loses his house?”) as small (“What if I missed out on the best airfare for vacation?”) Once you begin to clear away chronic (and usually pointless) worries, you can focus on genuine concerns, and find the courage to handle them. “These are techniques you can use right now,” says Leahy. “They may not work perfectly, because it is such a revolutionary way of thinking about your thinking. But when a worry pops into your head, you can choose to not take it seriously.”

Photo credits: 2 heads: Fanatic Studio/Getty Images Brain with smiley faces: Mark Airs/Getty Images