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Escape from the Worry Trap

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Diane Umansky

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When many of us are peacefully slumbering, Paula McClure, the owner of a spa in Dallas, is often jolted awake by what she refers to as her sleep committee.

"The committee meets in my head at 3 a.m., and we run down a list of problems: all the things I didn't get done that day, people I didn't call back, decisions I'm worried about," she says.

The dark-of-the-night fretting may follow McClure into the daytime hours, often making her feel emotionally paralyzed. "My stomach tightens, my mouth gets really dry and my brain starts spinning so fast I can't think straight," she says, describing the sensation.

Who hasn't found herself in a similar state? We all worry from time to time, about deadlines and expectations, about loved ones, finances, health and a host of other issues. Though both sexes brood, research suggests that women are society's designated worriers.

"My hunch is that boys are trained from a very early age to get up and do something to distract themselves from their problems," says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, whose studies show that the tendency to worry may start in girls as young as age eight.

"It's more acceptable for girls to worry and focus on their feelings," she notes. "They don't get as much encouragement and teaching about problem-solving strategies and how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

Worry Is Healthy

A certain amount of worry is necessary for survival; it helps us anticipate future hazards and prepare for them.

"Worry is like a smoke detector that nature has built into our brains," explains author and worry expert Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. "It serves to keep us out of danger."

For example, if it's 2 a.m. and your teenage daughter is not yet home from a date, a reasonable level of concern might well propel you out of bed to call her boyfriend, her friends, even the police.

But many of us worry far too often and far too easily; we are so sensitized to the possibility of danger that we "catastrophize," convincing ourselves that a twinge of indigestion is a sign of impending appendicitis, that a scolding from the boss signals the end of a career.

As psychologist Gary Emery, Ph.D., director of the Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Therapy, puts it, worry is often about "trying to solve something that's not solvable at the moment. It gives people the illusion that they're doing something. But as the old Italian proverb says, 'A cartload of worry won't pay an ounce of debt.'"

Not only can worry leave us spinning our wheels, it also can depress us, poison our relationships and sap us of energy and the joy of living as we wrestle with relentless "what ifs."

Carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders can also make us physically sick, with ailments such as back pain, digestive disorders, rashes and recurring headaches. Research from the University of Kentucky in Lexington suggests that frequent fretting may even weaken the immune system.

"Chronic, persistent worry is just as dangerous for your health as high blood pressure," says Dr. Hallowell. "It's bad for virtually every system of the body."

But the good news, he adds, is that worry is definitely controllable. Ready to tame it? Try these techniques from the experts.

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