The more conversations I have with my girlfriends, the more I realize: women are natural worriers. We worry about little things (I woke up at 2am last night with my mind racing about the wood floors we’re getting installed!) and the big things (families, health, job security… the list goes on.) However unpleasant it might feel at the time, worry’s not all bad. At its best, worry can be the impetus we need to take positive actions and ensure we’re doing what needs to be done. For example, if we’re worried about our financial future, it can inspire us to focus on putting aside a little savings each month. Since worry is something none of us will ever fully escape, I thought it was worth consulting the experts to find out how we can use it to our advantage: by letting it spur us on to become our best selves, rather than allowing it to paralyze us. Click through the slides for 8 solid strategies to keep worry in check.
Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, a family physician and coauthor of The Mommy MD Guide to Losing Weight and Feeling Great, says that we can use worry to benefit us:
The first rule of constructive worrying is to refuse to allow yourself to worry about things that are completely out of your control. If you’re worried that it might rain on your daughter’s wedding day, you can take steps to make sure that the wedding will go off without a hitch, rain or shine, but no amount of worrying on your part is going to change the weather on your daughter’s big day. Worrying about things that you cannot control or change is completely fruitless. It’s also exhausting and detrimental to your emotional and physical health.
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Find an Outlet
Ferny Barcelo, an LPC-I at Austin Mindfulness Center in Austin, focuses on using mindfulness-based therapy to help her clients through depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and a larger array of issues (as well as being a Registered Yoga Instructor!) She advises:
Stop repressing the worry – it will only come out in some other way (cue a panic attack, no sleep, or even physical pain like head and stomach aches). Instead, create a release for the pressure cooker in your head: journal about what is making you stress, go talk to your therapist, or even just vent to a friend over coffee. Simply acknowledging that the stress exists is a great way to help diffuse it.
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Put it on paper.
Barcelo recommends combatting the daily stresses of life by writing or typing things down. “Oftentimes, our stress stems from feeling like we have an overwhelming amount of things to take care of. Our brains aren’t the best at keeping thoughts organized, and sometimes end up making it all feel like one giant mess. Make numbered lists of your daily tasks, keep notes on your phone, or download a task management app to help keep track of your life. It will make the actual day’s activities look much more manageable, and less like a tangled muddle of worry.”
Dr. McAllister says that in every situation, it’s helpful to identify and clarify exactly what is worrying us. “Recently I was asked to give a lecture to a group of medical students, and I found that after I agreed to do the talk, I had a vague sense of uneasiness about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me, so I sat down with a pen and paper, gave it some thought, and came up with a list. I discovered that I was worried about everything from not wearing the right outfit to tripping and falling on my way to the podium. Some of my worries were justifiable, and others were completely ridiculous. I crossed off the ridiculous worries, laughed at myself, and focused on addressing the worries that had merit. By the time I was finished with this exercise, I felt far more relaxed and confident that things would go well.”
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Determine what you really want.
“Worry focuses on the unwanted situation or outcome. Instead of concentrating on what you don’t want, ask yourself what it is that you really do want. In discussing anxiety and worry with hundreds of my patients over the years, I’ve found that many of them have trouble putting into words exactly what they want. It’s far easier for them to describe their fears and concerns. It’s helpful to take the time to state exactly what you want, and then repeat that statement to yourself whenever you find yourself worrying about the outcome,” says Dr. McAllister.
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Engage in positive visualization rather than negative visualization.
Dr. McAllister says, “When we worry, what we’re really doing is engaging in negative visualization. We imagine all the things that can go wrong and we envision bad outcomes. It’s far more productive and beneficial to engage in positive visualization. If you’re worried about making a good impression on a first date or during your upcoming job interview, don’t waste a single second of your time envisioning all the things that can go wrong. Instead, invest your time and energy in visualizing all the things that will go right, and how happy and satisfied you’ll be with the successful outcome.”
Ask: What (If Anything) Is Under My Control?
Barcelo says, “If we were to graph out what people worry about, a huge chunk of it would be things that have already happened and are unchangeable, things in the future that haven’t happened yet, and things that they have no control over at all. So all worrying is doing in these instances is making you miserable, for absolutely no reason. We have to create acceptance that some things in our life will be completely out of our hands. And that can be okay! Life can be an enjoyable ride, even if you’re not holding the steering wheel all of the time. The more acceptance you create around the fact some things are simply a matter of fate, coincidence, or luck, the better the ride will be for you. All worry does is make the journey less enjoyable.”
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Do What You Can. Then Move On!
Barcelo also advises us to analyze the situation. Ask what you can do to make it more manageable. If there is something to be done to alleviate some of the worry, do it. Then (and this step is key!) move on to the next thing. Don’t spend anymore of your mental energy on something that can no longer be helped. Instead, try spending time enjoying the things you already have. Practicing gratitude can be a great counter-action towards worrying. Take a look at your life, and then take a second to acknowledge what is already good about it. This will usually make all those things that make us stress seem much less important. Remember, be present and be grateful!
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Break the habit.
McAllister points out, “Worrying is a habit, and like all habits, it can be changed. That’s not to say that you can completely banish worry from your life, and you probably shouldn’t even if you could. Small doses of worry make us better parents, friends, and partners. But after you’ve identified and addressed what’s worrying you in a productive manner, and you’ve taken steps to ensure a positive outcome, it’s time to let it go, at least until you decide to address it again. How do you let it go? Give yourself a specific time to think about it and a time limit, and then change the subject in your mind. If I’ve got something worrying me, I might decide to wait to think about it till I’m driving home from work. That way, I don’t let it ruin my day or anyone else’s. I make up my mind to focus completely on my work while I’m in my office, and once I’m in my car, I can turn my thoughts to the issue that’s worrying me. I usually give myself a time limit of 15 or 20 minutes to go through the cycle of worrying constructively—identifying and clarifying my concerns, determining what it is I really want and how I can achieve that outcome, and then engaging in positive visualization. Then I change the channel in my head. I make myself think about something else—what’s going right in my life, what I’m grateful for, and what I have to look forward to. If I find my mind drifting back to the topic of worry, I redirect my thoughts to other topics. Sometimes I have to do this over and over again. Learning to limit and control worrying often takes practice and a lot of hard work, but it can be done.”
When is worrying bad?
McAllister: “Worrying is detrimental to your emotional and physical wellbeing when it is constant and unrelenting, when you feel that you can’t control it, and when it interferes with your daily life. If this is the case, it’s time to seek professional help. Making an appointment with your physician or a counselor is a good place to start. Constant worrying could be a sign of a condition that often responds well to treatment, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
Barcelo: “The most obvious pitfalls of worry are the affects to our physical health. Heart problems, breathing issues, headaches, and tense muscles are just a few of the physical symptoms that can manifest in our bodies due to too much stress. Aside from the damage we may do to our bodies, our minds suffer as well. When we are under too much stress, we think less clearly, can be more temperamental, and be less able to manage our daily tasks properly. We become run-down, unhappy, and generally less efficient. Cultivating a less stressful life will lead to a healthier one, both mentally and physically.”
Big thanks to Dr. Rallie McAllister and Ferny Barcelo for sharing their insights today! We’ll wrap up with this encouragement from Ferny: “Remember that you deserve as much love as those around you. The more you take care of yourself, the better you will be able to care for others.”
image by trinette and chris photography