Are you a worrywart? If you're reading this, you probably are.
After all, we humans are natural worriers. But getting worked up over a mixed message from your boss or a 3-pound bump on the scale rarely solves a problem. Instead, you can use worry to your advantage, advises Kimberly Medlock, a professional organizer, time-management coach, and author of What Not to Do at the Office: 44 Annoying, Time-Wasting and Unproductive Habits in the Workplace. "Learn how to recognize worry, and then replace it with thinking," she says. "Worry is when your thoughts are stuck on the problem. Thinking is when you are focused on finding a solution. Worry is useless and counterproductive—thinking is progress." Follow these tips to switch off your worry response.
Adapted from List Maker's Get-Healthy Guide
Chances are, your problem isn't that you have too many worries but that you have too few strategies for dealing with them, says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD. Sit down with a sheet of paper divided into three columns, he advises, and list all of your worries in the first column. In the second, write down the worst thing that can happen if what you're worried about comes true. In the third, list three or four strategies for dealing with "the worst" and circle the one that you think you can handle. Then do it!
Hire a tutor for your C student, or steer her to a junior college where she can improve her grades. Those won't-budge 10 pounds? Maybe you need to see a nutritionist or sign up for classes at the gym. A financial consultant can help you get your retirement fund in good shape. An actionable game plan is almost always an antidote to worry.
2. Imagine the best-case scenario
Visualize yourself dealing with a problem head-on—and resolving it successfully, says Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH. If you don't know or can't fathom what the best-case scenario is, it becomes that much more difficult to achieve it, she says.
As new worries or challenges pop up, seek out a silver lining. "Whenever a new situation arises, immediately ask yourself, ‘what's good about this?'" says McAllister. Anxious about a biopsy result from the doctor? Tell yourself that you're being proactive about your health, and no matter what happens, you're better off finding out now instead of in 6 months or a year.
3. Do what you can do today
Are you a procrastination queen? It may be making you more anxious than you realize. "Many people have a habit of not handling issues until they become overwhelming," says John M. Rowley, director of wellness at the International Sports Science Association. "Deal with what you have to deal with today." A jumbo work project will only seem more impossible if you wait until the 11th hour to tackle it. Instead, break it down into mini tasks you can do one day at a time during the week before it's due. The very act of divvying may seem intimidating, but once you make that first dent, you'll feel much better.
4. Give yourself a pep talk
Often a little self-encouragement is all you need to snap out of a bout of worries. Sometimes, we're our own worst enemies, McAllister says. To make nice with yourself, pretend for a day that you have a cartoon bubble over your head, and catch everything you say to yourself, suggests Sandra Haber, PhD. Write it down, and read it back. Negative self-talk keeps you buried in your pain. Instead, offer yourself the same enthusiasm and support you'd give your best friend. It feels artificial at first, but when you catch yourself saying something mean, stop and make it nice.
5. Find something better to do
Another way to override worry is to mentally change the subject. "Engage in an activity that brings you joy or requires all of your attention," McAllister says. University of Maryland research shows that the happiest people spend 30% less time parked in front of the TV. One reason may be that TV watching is linked to rumination, mulling over your thoughts again and again and again. To break the worry cycle, chat up a good friend, recommends Stephen S. Ilardi, PhD, author of The Depression Cure. A good two-way conversation takes a lot of mental energy, so it's difficult to ruminate while you're in the middle of one. Another good distraction: Do something active, like hop on your kid’s Wii or shoot some hoops in the driveway. According to Ilari, the act of coordinating your movements demands so much focus, you don't have as much room for errant worries.
6. Keep it in perspective
A good chunk of what we worry about happens to be things that we have little or no control over, like work layoffs. Ask yourself whether the worrying is really worthwhile. Whatever you're upset about, it's likely not as threatening as you think, says Stephen M. Sultanoff, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. Once you examine the threat and accept that it's unlikely or out of your hands, you will worry about it less.
7. Practice a power move
Have you ever seen a basketball player dribble 3 times before shooting a free throw or a baseball player go through an elaborate routine before stepping into the batter’s box? Rowley recommends that you use a similar "power move" strategy next time you feel stress or worry coming on.
"Yours can be as simple as touching two of your fingers together," he says. "The key is to get yourself in a positive frame of mind and then do these moves over and over again until they are ingrained. Then when you're in a pressure-cooker situation, all you do is touch your two fingers together." It's a private little cue to help you feel calm and focused.
8. Stand up straighter
For an instant mood lift, watch your posture. When Ohio State University researchers asked study participants to rate their skills related to job opportunities, they found that those who completed the task with proper posture were more secure in their abilities than those who were slumped over. "People feel confident when they're sitting upright, and they can attribute that confidence to their present thoughts," says study author and psychologist Richard E. Petty, PhD.
9. Go to sleep early
It may sound counterintuitive to tell a worrywart to just go to sleep, since late-night fretting is a notorious insomnia trigger. But remember that nothing can fry your nerves or ability to think like being tired, says Thom Lobe, MD. "Fatigue tends to exacerbate any form of anxiety." To fall asleep despite your stewing thoughts, keep what sleep expert and NYU associate professor Joy Walsleben, PhD, calls a worry book—a journal in which a couple of hours before bed, you jot down thoughts that might keep you up. Then, she says, when those worries creep into your head later, tell yourself, "I can't improve upon it today, so I'm not thinking about it." Other experts recommend literally kicking those worries out of the bedroom. Move the journal to another room and leave it until morning. (Make it sleep on the couch, as it were.)
10. Crack yourself up
Okay, it's not exactly hilarious that you're so stressed and busy that you're eating dinner at work for the third night in a row. But being able to crack a chuckle or a smile can defuse a situation. "Select three to five memories that always make you laugh, and store them away in your mind," suggests Bruce S. Rabin, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program. "Then, when something is upsetting you, go to your ‘funny bank' and laugh to yourself." More from Prevention