A Lesson From NASCAR Helped Me Learn to Quit Worrying and Love Stress

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Auto racing is a form of entertainment I just don’t quite "get"; I’ve never been a big fan of watching guys drive cars around in a circle, fast. But, considering that NASCAR is the most popular spectator sport in America, I’m clearly in the minority! Yet one important safety tip for racecar drivers has always stuck with me:

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One of the first lessons all drivers learn -- because they take required safety classes before they're allowed near any track -- is how to come out of a spin. Now, spinning wildly out of control in a speeding automobile is nobody’s idea of a good time; that’s how drivers get injured, or worse.

But even the best racers in the world end up in a spin eventually because there are factors out of their control: oil on the track, blown tires, other drivers; the list goes on.

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And, here’s the interesting bit: Racecar drivers learn that, when they enter a spin, they should focus on where they want to go, not what they’re afraid of. If you stare at the wall when your car is out of control, you’ll crash right into it. If you avoid focusing on the wall or other dangerous obstacles, you may still crash -- but you’ll dramatically increase your odds of making it out of the spin and continuing the race. And, worrying about a crash? Worry is not an option when you’re driving 200 miles per hour.

Personally, I’ve found the same to be true for running a business: There’s a time and place for worrying, for sure. Worry keeps us sharp. The stress it brings can actually be a motivator. But worrying all the time or to excess only increases the odds that we'll hit that wall, lose focus and wreck our quality of life.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are seven of the most powerful ways I’ve discovered to keep my eyes on the road and avoid the wall:

1. Compartmentalize.

This is a trick I picked up from the great Dale Carnegie. Compartmentalizing is a coping mechanism that allows our brains to deal with conflicting emotions at the same time. When you’re struggling, put your worry or reason for stress into a little compartment inside your mind and leave it there for later -- think of that compartment as a dresser drawer or shoebox.

This allows you to get back to what is positive and healthy for you right now. When you’re calmer, you can open up the compartment and reassess the worry for a short period of time before shutting it away again.

2. Ask, 'What’s the worst that can happen?'

Fear of unknown consequences can give some worries more power than they’re worth. When you start to feel that cold sweat, ask yourself, “What’s the absolute, positively worst that can happen?” Often, you’ll find that the worst is something you can handle! Once you’ve identified the worst-case scenario, you can prepare to accept it, if need be.

But you can also begin thinking about how to improve on that worst-case scenario, putting the power of positive thinking to work.

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3. Challenge your worries.

Chronic worries are often the product of a cycle of bad thinking habits. To break it, put your worries on the hot seat. Ask yourself questions like, “What’s the probability that this worry will actually come true?” and, “Am I focusing on solutions to my worries?”

Ask yourself if you’ve successfully handled problems like this before, and what encouraging advice you’d give to a friend who was facing the same worry. Above all, ask yourself if your thoughts are healthy or making things better.

4. Remember the law of averages.

"I’ve had many troubles in my life, most of which never happened,” Mark Twain once said. It's one of my favorite quotes, because it’s so true! I have a friend whose wife really wanted him to go skydiving with her. He finally agreed, but he was worried stiff over jumping out of that plane. All he could think about was all of the people who died in skydiving accidents.

The way he coped was by looking up statistics on these accidents. He discovered that only a miniscule percentage of people were killed on their first skydiving trip. The law of averages gave him the confidence to take the leap, and his wife loved him all the more for conquering his fear.

5. Make a list and check it twice.

Write down an actual list of your worries. They may sound unnecessary, since your worries can sometimes be all you can think about. But actually seeing them in front of you, in black and white, will make them so much smaller. Once you have a list, you can analyze it and determine which worries are productive and which are unproductive.

A productive worry is something you can take action on right away, like booking travel arrangements in advance or teaching your kids to swim. An unproductive worry is something you can’t do anything about. Recognize its uselessness and discard it.

6. Embrace the uncertainty.

Uncertainty causes a lot of stress, but in reality, uncertainty is completely neutral. No one knows what the future holds, because the future hasn’t been written yet. If you’re worried about contracting ALS or some other terrible disease, for instance, understand that no one can tell you definitively if it will or won’t happen. It’s outside of your control.

Respect your own limitations! Believe it or not, good things come out of uncertainty, too. Accept the uncertainty of life and let go. Focus on the things you can control and enjoy the surprises along the way.

7. Repeat that worry of yours until you’re bored.

Don’t hide from your worries: Stare them in the face until they blink! If you can’t stop worrying about the possibility of a parent passing away, for example, try this technique: Outloud, repeat to yourself, “My parent could die soon.” Repeat it in the mirror. Repeat it in the car. Repeat it in the shower.

Keep repeating it over and over until you get bored. It won’t take long! Boredom is a very powerful feeling, and these days, it’s easier than ever to get bored! Once you become totally bored and sick of this thought, you’ll find that it becomes easy to banish from your mind.

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Once you learn to break your worries down and put them into a healthy context, you’ll be able to focus on the things you can control to increase your own happiness and success. It’s possible to come out of that spin -- NASCAR drivers do it all the time (I’m told!). It’s just a matter of keeping your focus on the way forward.