How to worry less

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Published January 11, 2012

| Real Simple

To calm 6 of the most common fears, use these strategies.

Worry: Job Security
The reality: In an uncertain economy, employment is far from a sure thing, so it's easy to wonder if your position may be eliminated.

You're most vulnerable if: You've been laid off from a job before or someone close to you was fired unexpectedly.

What to do: Grounding yourself in day-to-day reality is a good way to avoid stressing. Try to keep a close eye on how your company is doing financially so you can gauge the likelihood of layoffs, says Barbara Gutek, professor of women and leadership at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Meet with your boss to learn what you can do to solidify your position. Discuss what projects you should be working on and which skills and responsibilities you should be developing. No matter what, it's always smart to look ahead, whether that means thinking of your next move within your company or contemplating a larger career change, says Robert Leahy, author of The Worry Cure.

It has gone too far when: You are constantly stressing over your job performance, despite multiple reassurances that your work is up to snuff. In this case, overly perfectionistic tendencies could be to blame, and you may want to discuss this issue with a therapist.

Worry: The Safety and Well-Being of Your Children

The reality: There’s plenty to be anxious about. Because you love your children, it’s natural that you want to protect them from harm and heartache, and it can be hard to accept that you can’t completely control everything. In fact, “some worry or concern is probably a sign of good parenting,” says Steven Taylor, a coauthor of It's Not All in Your Head.

You’re most vulnerable if: Your child had a serious illness or accident, or he has a chronic health condition. Or if you were neglected during your childhood, you could be overcompensating by constantly worrying.

What to do: Find a pediatrician you trust and can talk to candidly. “Most pediatricians are used to parents who worry,” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the author of Women Who Think Too Much, “and a big part of their job is to help parents figure out what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t.” If your pediatrician doesn’t do this, switch doctors. With worries that aren’t related to health―if your child is struggling with math or having a conflict with a friend―ask yourself whether there’s an action you can take to deal with the situation. Does your child need a tutor? Could talking to a therapist help him better manage difficult friendships? If a solution presents itself, try it. But in the end, Leahy says, “you may have to learn to accept uncertainty. It helps if you recognize that kids are resilient. They have to learn how to fall down to learn how to get up.”

It has gone too far when: Worrying about your children interferes with your own life―if you’re losing sleep or if constant micromanaging is hurting your relationship. “If your body feels tight all the time and you can’t concentrate on work, tell your doctor that worry is interfering with your ability to get through a normal day,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. Ask about the possibility of seeing an anxiety expert.

Worry: The Threat of Terrorism and Natural Disasters
The reality: We live in an uncertain world and are exposed to violent images on TV and the Internet. It’s enough to make the calmest person paranoid, or at least a bit edgy.

You’re most vulnerable if: You’ve ever been in a situation that threatened your safety―surviving a four-alarm fire, for example―says Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, in Washington, D.C. Also, you may not cope well with unpredictability.

What to do: Take a few moments to consider the probability (not the possibility) that a terrorist attack will occur in your town or whatever else you’re worried about happening will happen, says Ross. “If you differentiate between facts and fears, you can deal with reality,” she says. Even if you live in New York City or Washington, D.C., which bore the brunt of the 9/11 attacks, remind yourself that that is the only time in U.S. history that such a large-scale terrorist attack has occurred. “Our minds have a way of focusing on the horrific risks that are highlighted in the news,” says Ross. “However, the chances of being in a car accident are greater than those of being killed by a terrorist.” As a way of coping, learn how to be better prepared for a disaster. Write a list of things that would make your home safer and more secure, and come up with a disaster-readiness plan. Check these tasks off the list as you complete them. “Then you can say, ‘OK, I’ve done everything I can. Now I need to go on with my life,’” says Ross. “If you can’t move on, seek help.”

It has gone too far when: Your worry leads you to make unnecessary and unreasonable adjustments to your life―for example, refusing to fly or take public transportation. These fears may have developed into a mild anxiety disorder, says Ross. Talking to a therapist could bring things back into perspective.

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Worry: Your Health
The reality: Everyone worries about illness now and then, and as you move into middle age, you’re more likely to have unfamiliar aches and pains.

You’re most vulnerable if: You’ve observed important people in your life becoming ill or overreacting to illness. If you have had a troubled health history, you may be more likely to overthink your health.

What to do: Get a thorough checkup to determine if you’re in good health, and bring any legitimate symptoms to your doctor’s attention. Then focus on the positive things you can do for yourself, like improving your diet and other habits.

It has gone too far when: Your doctor repeatedly assures you that you don’t have the illness you fear and you continue to fret anyway, or you suffer from disease-of-the-month syndrome (you’re convinced you have whatever disease is in the news). In these cases, your fears may be unhealthy, says Taylor. If reasonable measures don’t help and your health worries are taking over your life, seek professional advice. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy, which seeks to identify and change distorted patterns of thinking, can help people change their faulty thought processes and their responses to bodily sensations.

Worry: Money
The reality: Even people who earn more than enough to cover their expenses can be hit with unexpected bills, due to anything from a lost job to a major illness.

You're most vulnerable if: Your parents were nervous about money or you grew up in a home where it was a constant struggle to make ends meet. Others believe that having more money will make them feel more secure or garner respect. "Sometimes people look to money to make up for what they're missing in love, power, or self-esteem," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Worry.

What to do: Keep a budget and track what you spend in cash; make a list of how much you owe, and note if you're saving any money. This will give you a sense of whether you need to be concerned. (If you can't gauge this on your own, see a financial planner.) It's also wise to think about what money symbolizes to you, Leahy says. If it represents security, success, pride, or moral worth, for example, finding other (free!) ways to fulfill those desires can take some of the pressure off your financial picture. Also, avoid comparing your finances and happiness with those of people who have more money, Leahy says, because "this can fuel money worries."

It has gone too far when: The smallest expenditure sends you spinning into a budgetary tizzy, or you can't enjoy a few simple indulgences. Leahy suggests talking to a therapist, possibly one who specializes in financial issues.

Worry: The State of Your Relationship
The reality: Relationships are fraught with challenges, particularly as the years together add up.

You’re most vulnerable if: You’ve ever been betrayed by a lover, you have lingering fears of abandonment, or you grew up in a fractured family. Unresolved issues can end up projected onto a spouse and cause a ripple effect.

What to do: Take stock of your relationship by asking yourself how often you’re frustrated or upset with your partner and in what situations this typically happens. “Write down your thoughts,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. “Getting your worries on paper helps you evaluate them with a clearer head.” Consider how realistic your concerns are and whether you could be projecting unrelated anxieties onto the relationship. Then “find a calm time to talk to your partner, being honest but not confrontational,” says Nolen-Hoeksema.

It has gone too far when: You take each squabble as a sign your relationship is faltering, or you’ve stopped enjoying time you spend with your partner. “There are ambiguities in every relationship,” says Nolen-Hoeksema. “If you pester your partner about what he really meant or felt, that can lead to conflict, not clarification.” For help in talking things through, consider couples counseling. Or if the problem rests mostly with you, see a therapist on your own.

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