Is there a solution to worrying besides "don't worry"? Certainly, the usual platitudes abound: Lighten up. You can't control the world. Everything happens for a reason. They seldom help -- so we set out to find out what does.
We asked Buddhist psychotherapist Stephen Cope and cognitive psychologist Robert Leahy, Ph.D., to share their insights on coping with worry. Chances are you'll see yourself in more than one of the following six profiles -- and that's okay. The goal is to better understand where your worries come from, and to start changing the ways they affect your life.
You're as likely to worry about whether the waiter will mess up your order as you are about getting to the bank before it closes. Sometimes you even worry to fill time.
To change this, learn to distinguish between productive and unproductive worry, says Leahy. "Ask yourself what you're getting out of worrying." Does it help you get more prepared or more anxious? Does it hone your attention or scatter it?
Worrying about a speech you're giving may motivate you to plan carefully -- which Leahy calls productive worry. But dwelling on "What if no one shows up?" is unproductive and provokes anxiety (especially since you can't do anything about it).
Jot down every worry that's buzzing through your mind right now. Don't think; just write for two minutes straight. Then review your list. Which worries have a corresponding action? For those, write down the action (confirm the tickets, call the doctor). Your unproductive worries are those without a corresponding action. They represent nothing but a waste of time and energy, so cross them off.
Try this a few times throughout the week and analyze your findings. What percentage of your worries are unproductive? When you become more aware of how much time you spend on unproductive worries, you'll get better at refocusing that time elsewhere.
Consciously or not, you believe you can control the universe through your thoughts. If you worry about it enough, you'll make that good thing happen (or prevent a bad thing from happening). Consumed by uncertainty and fearful of change, you feel you could stop worrying if only you had the one thing that forever eludes you: total control.
Since you don't know what will happen in the future, you use worry to protect yourself from the unknown -- with mixed results. "Life is profoundly impermanent and constantly changing," says Cope, "and it's best to let go of attempts to control experiences and outcomes."
Get absorbed in the present. "Give yourself something delightful and compelling to focus on right now," says Cope. When you walk your dog, focus on the swing and rhythm of your legs. When you eat an orange, allow the whole of your attention to be absorbed by it -- the scent, the texture, the weight of it in your hand.
If your attention starts to wander, gently bring it back. The more in tune you are with this central, observing part of yourself, the easier it is to embrace the flow of life without feeling threatened -- and the fewer opportunities you give worry to creep in.
You believe your worry is a barometer or sign of future catastrophe. If it's on your radar as a cause for concern, it must, therefore, be a true threat. Your problem, says Denise Marek, author of "CALM*: A Proven Four-Step Process Designed Specifically for Women Who Worry," is an inability to tell the difference between worry and intuition. The two share trademark signs: a sense of impending doom, a change in physical sensation (nagging headache, nervous stomach). But there's one key differentiating factor. "Intuition starts as a feeling," says Marek. "Worry starts as a thought."
To tell the difference, tune in to what comes first. You may get the heebies when you're introduced to a new colleague. It could be your intuition telling you he can't be trusted. But if you're already worried about your job security, the unsettled feeling may really reflect worry, not intuition.
Take the intuition test. "Worry breeds anxiety, but intuition breeds calm," says Marek. If your worrying worsens, reducing your ability to focus, chances are it's stemming from anxiety. Intuition, on the other hand, often brings clarity, insight, and sound decision-making; you feel more sure, not less, of what you need to do.
Pay close attention not just to the physical sensations you experience, but to how and when you began to feel them. If you experience a gut feeling, take a closer look at what may be the source of it. If it resulted from an interaction or a fleeting insight, ask yourself what might have caused it. If it came as a result of thoughts, chalk it up to worry-induced anxiety, and let it go.
You're haunted by larger, looming questions: "What is the point of life?" and "What does it all mean?" It feels trivial to go about your day without pondering the big-picture implications of everything. It may seem that you're doing the big thinking for the rest of us, but you may just be adding to your worries. A little intellectual discourse will make for compelling conversation, but when you prioritize metaphysical worry over more urgent matters (your job, relationships, finances), you may be adding to your despair.
Many contemplative traditions like Buddhism and yoga recommend against vast and fruitless philosophical deliberations, says Cope. "They teach you to focus on the present and what's in front of you right now." He adds that getting caught up in big, airy topics can signify a kind of denial. "It's much more beneficial to bring your awareness, energy, and attention closer to home."
Drill down. Just as smaller worries tend to mask larger issues centering on self-image and social acceptance, bigger fears also often belie the issue at hand.
First, identify what bigger-issue worries consume you and how often (every morning when you awake? after the news?). What are those worries distracting you from?
Second, give yourself space to engage in your own intellectual curiosity -- minus the accompanying fearful emotions -- by channeling it more beneficially. Take an adult-education class on Nietzsche at a local college, for instance, or start a book club where you can read and discuss the bigger issues together. That way you feed your zest for inquiry without letting it overwhelm you.
You ruminate over past conversations and actions ad infinitum. You believe that if you revisit the past enough times, you'll somehow feel better about it. By worrying, you somehow hope to turn off the "Regret" switch. But it never seems to work, so you keep at it.
What's done is done -- and she who tries to change or fix past events by worrying about them will find little relief. Part of the problem may lie in the way you talk to yourself: Negative self-talk can stir up regret, guilt, and self-doubt -- all of which only feeds those ruminations.
Do you editorialize your decisions? Do you condemn or chastise, thinking things like "I always say stupid things like that" or "I should never have gone to that party in the first place"? If so, you may want to turn the spotlight on your inner dialogue, which may be the source of worry.
Close the book. Rather than go over and over past events or conversations, Marek suggests writing down what happened, how you acted, and what you'll do differently next time. Note your use of "worry words" -- should, can't, no one, everyone, always, never -- and commit to replacing those words with more realistic terms in the future: could, prefer, can, choose not to, some people, sometimes.
The most valuable thing you gain from experience -- good or bad -- is the wisdom to handle things more wisely when that situation arises again. When you're done, close the book on it, once and for all.
You're concerned about the fate of the planet at large, and burdened with thoughts of war, hunger, and greenhouse-gas emissions. You feel it's your duty to keep these issues on your worry radar, and that, by doing so, you are somehow helping improve the situation.
Similar to the Existentialist, the Worldwide Worrier concerns herself with the big issues -- minus the metaphysical slant. We should all be concerned with others' safety and well-being and the health of our environment. But when these concerns overshadow all else, you create no end of guilt ("How can I worry about replacing the washer/dryer when there's a war going on, the planet's heating up, and sea levels are rising?").
It's time to pull back on the reins a bit. Although your vision and compassion are admirable, they're also getting in the way of your ability to do your best on any front.
Align actions with values. Support the causes you hold dear -- without committing to a life fraught with unproductive worry. Rather than exert energy worrying about the problem, transform those unproductive frets into actions that support the causes close to your heart.
If you're concerned with climate change (and who isn't?), devise a plan for making a difference -- whether it's by changing your buying habits, writing to your mayor, or participating in local activist groups. Worrying alone is not enough to save the planet, prevent disease, or feed hungry children. Actions, even small ones, are the worry antidote.