Worry can make you feel miserable—but did you know that it can also take a toll on your health? Don't worry, be healthy—and find relief.
Excessive concern or anxiety saps energy and hinders productivity. It also stimulates production of cortisol; this can lead to weight gain, depression and heart disease, all of which might make you worry even more. As tension mounts, you may find yourself turning to self-soothing habits—smoking, drinking, eating too much—and further compounding the damage that excess worry does to your health.
"Reducing worry, much like losing unnecessary weight, is a way you can have a healthier life," says Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You. "By reducing anxiety, you reduce physical tension and aches and pains, improve sleep and ease digestion."
Regrettably, almost 40 percent of us worry every day; women are twice as likely as men to do so. But research shows that there are steps you can take to reduce worry. And you can start taking them right now.
A person who never worries is, well, a person who isn’t really human! Clearly, some worry is productive, points out Leahy, who is also the director of the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy, “Say you have to drive from New York to Boston. Productive worry would involve things like asking yourself. Do I have a car reserved? Do I have a map? Do I have a hotel reservation? It’s productive because it concerns actions you can take today.” Those actions make life move along more smoothly.
Unproductive worry is concerned with things you can’t do anything about: What if you car breaks down? What if the hotel room is double-booked?
Learning to see the distinction between the two forms of worry can cut down on lots of useless anxiety. One way of doing this is to ask yourself whether your worry is productive or unproductive. When it’s productive, put it on a to do list, then take action. Taking action will help you relax, which makes it easier to let go of unproductive worry.
Go with the Flow
Embracing life’s uncertainties has its advantages. It leaves room for more spontaneity and adventure and lets you not sweat the small stuff. But that’s difficult for many folks to accept. “People who worry have a hard time accepting uncertainty,” says Leahy. They worry, he suggests, to try to gain answers to questions about the future: Will my 10-year-old have a good job one day? Will I not get that promotion?
“If you’re worried about failure, you’re going to avoid risk, you’re going to demand certainty before you try anything, or you’re going to quit early,” says Leahy. “If you accept that you don’t know the answers, you’ll likely stop worrying, and you’ll be able to live in the moment. The disadvantage is that you might get surprised. But my feeling is that I’d rather be unpleasantly surprised sometimes than miserable all my life.”
Worriers tend to avoid new things (public speaking, going to parties) because it makes them uncomfortable; they worry because they think it will help them avoid discomfort. But when you can do things that are uncomfortable, you automatically rely less on worry as a coping strategy. “A worrier thinks that worry will prevent something bad from happening,” says Leahy, “while a resilient person thinks, if something happens, I’ll handle it. It’s like learning a new language or dance or instrument. You do things that are initially uncomfortable in order to make progress.”
Be Realistically Positive
Worriers jump to conclusions about bad things happening, but research shows that 85 percent of the things people worry about have a positive outcome. “It’s a good idea to look at the evidence for and against your worry,” says Leahy, “and to find the positive side of a worrisome situation. For example, if you’re worried that you might lose your job, rather than thinking of being fired as a catastrophe, think of it as a chance.” Banishing worries and becoming positive, Leahy says, is a process of “reframing change so you see it as something that offers opportunities.”
From our sister publication, REMEDY (Fall 2007)