Worried? 10 ways to soothe your fears

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Whether you worry about your career, your kids, or your personal safety, here are effective ways to ease your mind

Think constructively

Worrywarts tend to automatically assume the worst will happen in any situation. You can head off the cascade of negative thoughts by challenging them with logic, says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell. Ask yourself questions like, How do I know the situation is bad? What are other possible outcomes? Is there a more positive way to see the situation? Say you have a falling-out with your fianc. Instead of spending the rest of the day in a panic, convinced your relationship is doomed, remind yourself that the two of you have fought many times before, that your fianc loves you, and that fights are a normal part of all relationships.

Make a plan

Action is a powerful antidote to anxiety. After that argument with your fianc, make a list of what went wrong and how you could deal with it better the next time, or call a friend to discuss the spat. Likewise, you'll have less fodder for worry if you start addressing the situations that cause you stress. Hallowell suggests you come up with three specific changes you want to make that address specific worries, such as making a will if you're concerned about your estate, seeing your dentist if you fear gum disease, or cleaning out the attic if you're afraid it has become a fire hazard. Next to each item write down how and when you are going to tackle it. Once these are done, give yourself three more tasks.

Get organized

Many everyday worries grow out of disorganization. Every bit of structure you add can reduce the time spent in useless worry. For example, get in the habit of making lists or keeping a daily schedule, or set a basket by the door to hold your keys so you can avoid that frantic morning search.

Distract yourself

If you can't shake a worrisome thought, take a brisk walk or play a game with your kids, pull a few weeds or read the paper. Anything that requires some concentration is helpful, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. A 10-minute break is all it takes to shut off the negative cycle of rumination. Another trick: Wear a rubber band around your wrist and when the train of "what ifs" starts gathering steam, snap the band hard and tell yourself to stop. The experts say such thought-stopping techniques really work.

Schedule your worries

Set aside a time and place - not the bedroom or anywhere else you like to relax - where you can spend 10 to 30 minutes every day worrying. That's right, just worrying. During that time, let all your worst fears rip. For the rest of the day, if a concern pops up, tell yourself to set it aside until your worry time. "When you worry without resistance, it tends to lose its power," says Wilson. Over time you'll find those troubling thoughts are less intrusive.

You can also postpone worrying into the future. If you're nervous about giving a presentation that you've been preparing for days, tell yourself to set those fears on the back burner for 20 minutes to two hours. When that time comes, either let yourself worry about it or postpone it again. This technique will help keep you more relaxed and in the moment.

Write your worries away

Keep a pad by your bed to jot down that vexing problem that jolts you awake at 2 a.m. You'll be able to get back to sleep knowing you won't forget about it. A worry journal can also help, though be sure to use it as a dumping ground and not a place to endlessly recycle the same concerns. You can also use a journal to work out answers to troubling problems.

Worry with a friend

Nothing brings your troubles down to size more quickly than sharing your concerns with someone else. Along with sympathy, you'll get a clearer perspective and help in brainstorming possible solutions.

Tame your tension

As psychologist Beverly Potter points out in The Worrywart's Companion (Wildcat Canyon Press, $13, www.amazon.com), tension and worrying go hand in hand, but if you can relax your body, your mind will follow. Try deep breathing to unwind and root yourself in the present. (Your abdomen should go out when you breathe in, and in when you breathe out.) Or practice tightening and then releasing your muscles from head to toe to teach yourself the difference between feeling tense and feeling relaxed. Seek calm through prayer, meditation, or yoga.

Treat yourself well

You know the drill - a good night's sleep, a warm bath, regular exercise, healthy eating, limited caffeine. Add them all up and your anxiety decreases.

Although some of these techniques may feel awkward or artificial, stick with them and you'll find they work. Just ask psychological researcher Evelyn Behar. When she was writing her master's thesis, she found herself up night after night, consumed with worry: How would she finish on time? Would her professors think she had done a good job? She knew she needed to get an adequate amount of sleep, so she gave herself a scheduled time and place to worry. Every night at 8 p.m. she gave herself 20 minutes of "worry time" on the living-room sofa. "I finally forced myself," she recalls, "and it saved a lot of time during the day, time I would have spent worrying.

Overall, my anxiety level went down."

Let go

Easier said than done. However, many people who make a habit of worrying often become convinced their vigilance is keeping bad things at bay - like the white-knuckle flyer who is certain her anxiety is keeping the plane aloft. The truth is, we don't have control over many situations in our lives - whether it's the safety of the airplane we're riding in our ability to have children. Hallowell suggests you try turning your worry over to God, or to fate if you don't believe in God. Accept that your worries won't make the world any different; they will only make you more unhappy. How? Try praying; try writing the worry down and putting it in a box; try anything that helps you let the worry go.