Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Life would be so much different without a wall of worry in the way.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, bringing attention to the one in five Americans who experiences a mental health condition. For many people, the overwhelming problem is constant worry — with some 42 million adults living with anxiety disorders, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates.

Amber Rae, a speaker and artist in New York, can relate.

“One day, I realized I had an invisible terrible someone inside my head shouting things at me all the time. I started to get curious about what that voice was and realized I was dealing with a lot of worry,” Rae, author of the new book, “Choose Wonder Over Worry: Move Beyond Fear and Doubt to Unlock Your Full Potential,” told TODAY.

“It was self-doubt, insecurity, fear, the inner critic and a lot of that inner mental noise.”

She was struck by a study cited by Dr. James Doty, a brain surgeon and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, that found the average person spends almost 80 percent of the time focused on regret about the past or anxiety about the future.

“It’s heart-breaking because you hear that and you think: Worry can cost us our life. So the question is what do we do about that?” Rae said.

She offered these tips:

Decide whether it’s useful or toxic worry

Worry isn’t necessarily bad — just know which kind you’re experiencing.

“What I’ve often found is when we’re worrying, we can’t decipher between what we can and cannot control … So the first step is to get clear on that,” Rae said.

Think of useful worry as an ally who is saying, “Pay attention to this. I’m trying to get your attention because this matters.” This is the kind of worry that pops up before an important meeting, decision or deadline to spur you to action.

Toxic worry is more about ruminating — those thoughts on an endless loop that paralyze and prevent people from taking action. This is the type of worry that has you asking: Am I good enough? Who am I to do this? What are they going to think of me? What if something bad happens?

Sort through your worries

• Take out a sheet of paper and write down everything you’re worried about: That way, the anxiety transforms from noise inside your head to something you can look at objectively, Rae advised.

• Go through every worry and circle what you can control.

• Ask yourself: “What productive action can I take on this?” Then write down your action plan by each circle.

Don’t numb your negative feelings

Rae is an optimist, but she’s wary of being a "positivity-oholic:" always grasping for the bright side to avoid considering what could go wrong.

Get to know your “uncomfortable messy feelings” and don’t immediately replace them with positive thoughts because negative emotions can offer wisdom, Rae advised.

When faced with fear or anxiety...

Rae recommends these three steps:

1. Name it: Label the feeling as vividly as possible to make it tangible. It could be “Ms. Perfectionist,” Fear, Anxiety or Anger.

2. Talk to it: Think of it as a character you can have a conversation with. When Rae is worried about how a project is going, she might say, “Hey Ms. Perfectionist, I see that you want this to be really good. What’s going on here? What important insight do you have?” These emotions are like children trying to get your attention: A dialogue can reveal what information they have, she said.

3. Make a request: You might say, “Hey Fear, I know this is really important to you and you’re a little freaked out, but we’re going to go do this. I need you to take a step back and give me a little space to see what’s possible.”

Realize that wonder and worry work together

If worry is the fear of what could go wrong, wonder is the curiosity of the unknown, Rae said. It applies to the possibilities in your life and career, but also to your inner emotional world: When worries arise, wonder what message they have for you, she advised.

Think of wonder and useful worry complementing each other.

“Wonder may have glorious ideas, visions and possibilities and dreams. But worry can really anchor those in preparation and deliberate action. ... They work together,” she said.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.