Worry steals your time and energy. It hides in the shadows, disrupts your rest, damages your ability to make decisions and steals the pleasure and satisfaction you should derive from work and play. When you worry, you don't plan, work toward a goal, or engage in positive thinking. You obsess on a problem, imagine the worst, fail to make decisions and avoid action.
Worries tend to fall into one of three categories: big or small decisions you must make ("Should I be a writer or operate a fast food franchise?"; "Should I order a salad with low-calorie dressing or have the double cheeseburger and fries?"); actions you must perform (give a business presentation or attend a social gathering); or events largely outside your control (nuclear weapons or holes in the ozone layer). The worries in the third category tend to be considerably larger but they are also less immediate and therefore probably take up less of your psychic energy than the more immediate concerns.
Whatever you're worried about, next time the anxiety erupts, consider the following steps as a way to turn that anxiety into positive energy:
Don't resist or deny the fear. You'll only send it underground, where it will fester and resurface, stronger than ever, to attack when you're most vulnerable. Face your fear. Let it wash over you. As you stop fearing the fear, the panic will subside. Worry will have done its worst.
Give the fear specific form and substance. Sometimes fear comes disguised as formless furies, vague dread or anxiety that can shake you out of a sound sleep and leave you wide awake until daybreak. Or it may take on a specific but false aspect.
Track your fear to its true source. Give it a name. If it helps, write the worry down, as specifically as you can, on a small "worry card." Now you can begin to deal with your fear effectively.
Push the fear to the ultimate. The fear doesn't exist apart from you. It's a reaction that takes place inside you. Since you created it, you can use it, re-channel it or diffuse it. Personify your fear and let it wear a face. Picture it sitting across the table from you. Ask it the first big question: What's the worst you can do to me?
The bomb would drop directly on you. If you eat the double cheeseburger and fries, you could drop dead of a heart attack before getting out of the restaurant. Now ask the second big question: What are the odds? Okay, you probably wouldn't die right there in the burger joint, but you might get a bad surprise the next time you step on a scale.
Figure out what, if anything, you can do. Any possible decision you can make must fall into one of three categories: do something now, do something later, or do nothing.
Deciding to do nothing is different from doing anything because you failed to decide. If you examine the situation and determine there's nothing you can do, you can relieve a great deal of your anxiety. If you refuse to decide, you'll go on worrying.
Brainstorm all possible options (including options that involve doing nothing). Play with the possibilities. You could decide, for example, to write a check to one of the organizations that monitors world traffic in fissionable material and thus help fight the spread of nuclear weaponry.
With the burger-versus-salad debate, you could decide to eat the cheeseburger and fast for the rest of the month. You could decide on a compromise - single cheeseburger, with tomatoes and onions, no fries. You could decide to eat the salad but steal bites of your friend's burger. Choose the option that seems best. Then put the matter out of your mind. Every time the worry comes back, remind yourself, "I've already decided about that."
Live with your decision. Make each decision only once. If you decide to eat the cheeseburger, enjoy the cheeseburger. If you decide on the salad, plunge into the salad. If you decide not to eat at all, savor the pleasure of virtuous fasting. Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly, and then get on with your life.
Act in spite of the fear. Since you feel your inner fear but see only the composed masks of others, you may assume that nobody else worries, that you're the only one plagued by formless furies. But most folks get them. They can't see yours, either, so they probably figure you're cool and calm unless you choose to tell them otherwise.
Courage isn't lack of fear. Courage is acting despite and through your fear, re-channeling that fear into energy and alertness. Don't pretend to yourself that you're not afraid. Experience your fear fully. As it runs its course, a gentle calmness will slowly replace it.
Worry comes in many forms and stems from many causes. Here's a guide to five of the more common subspecies and how to treat them:
Worry festering out of ignorance. You can't imagine any good outcome of your present situation. You're either sitting on the horns of a dilemma (two options, both bad) or you're trapped in a box (no options - no way out).
Don't worry. Learn. Seek information. Develop a list of options. There may be several ways off the horns or out of the box. You just don't know enough to see them yet, and your worry prevents you from even looking. As you gather possibilities, don't allow yourself to reject any of them (the automatic "this will never work" reflex). When you've assembled your list, choose the best option and act.
Worry lurking in the future. You're worried about a problem but can't do anything about it until later, leaving you with no way to dispel the anxiety now.
Don't worry. Defer. Write down the specific time when you'll take action. Then set the problem aside. Every time the worry returns, gently remind yourself that you'll handle it at the appointed time.
Worry focused on the past. "If only I had..." "Why did I..." "How could I have...?" But you did or you didn't. It's done or it isn't done.
Don't worry. Release. Is there anything you can do to make the situation better now? If so, write down the action, with the specific time and place you'll do it. Then be sure to keep your appointment, or you'll soon learn to disregard anything you write down on a card. If there's nothing you can do, or if you decide to do nothing, let it go. Don't wallow in regret. As fear looks to the future, remorse dwells in the past. They are the same crippling response facing opposite directions.
Worry feeding on inertia. Action deferred can be worry compounded. The longer you put off the confrontation, the stronger your worry will become and the harder it will be to overcome it.
Don't worry. Act. Even a "mistake" is often better than doing nothing. If you can't act now, write down the date and place you'll act and the action you'll take. Keep that appointment. Deal with it and get on with it.
Worry thriving on evasion. Decisions carry price tags. Whatever choice you make, it will cost you something. You don't want to think about the consequences, so you put off the decision, letting your worry thrive in the vacuum you create.
Don't worry. Pay. Calculate the cost of your decision as best as you can - in time, energy, money and relationships. When you decide on a course of action, decide also to pay the price - and then pay it promptly.
Here are three exercises to help you confront and dispel your worries.
1. List five to ten actions from your past that you truly regret.
Ask of each regret, "Is there anything I can do now to undo the damage?" If there is, write down exactly what you'll do to it. If you've done all you can, let your regrets go. Tear up the paper. Scatter the pieces.
2. List five to ten things you used to worry about.
Take a slow stroll through your list, asking yourself these questions about each entry:
Review your answers. Do you see a pattern? You'll probably discover that worry did little to help, but specific action and the healing power of time may have helped a lot.
3. List five to ten things you're worried about right now.
They can be big or small. Ask of each item:
Keep the papers that contain specific actions you've decided to take. Put the others in the shredder. If you can honestly tell yourself that worrying - not deciding, not planning, not acting - has helped you in the past or can help you now, go right on worrying. If you can't find any use in worrying, let the worry go and start using all that energy to live instead.