By Diane Umansky
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.
Worry as Vigilance
Some people view worry as a form of vigilance, reasoning, for example, that if they dwell on the likelihood of their wallet being stolen during a vacation, the theft won't occur.
"Some people feel they can make a deal with fate," says Dr. Hallowell. "If they suffer enough, the worry will prevent the negative outcome. But if you don't tie worry to action, it doesn't do a thing except make you sick."
Sort your concerns into those you can influence and those you can't, and focus your energy on the former. Jot down a list of possible solutions, sift through them and work toward implementing the best options.
Abolish Your Anxiety
"Take a good guess at what the best course of action is, knowing all along that you might make a mistake," advises clinical psychologist Paul A. Hauck, Ph.D., author of Overcoming Worry and Fear.
"And consider, would it be really terrible if you made a mistake? In most cases the world won't end if you do."
Talk to Someone
"Get it out. Talk to a friend, talk to a colleague, talk to your dog," advises Dr. Hallowell. "This is the number one tool of worry control because it's so simple and so effective."
To avoid overloading others with your angst, ask a pal for 10 minutes of vent time, then offer your ear to her.
Devote a set amount of time — say, 10 to 20 minutes a day — to your potential troubles.
Let your imagination run as wild as it can during this period. Afterward, if an upsetting thought arises, file it away for the next day's session.
Too difficult? Start by working to postpone worries for a few minutes at a time.
Imagine the Chances
Pondering how you'd feel and what you'd do if the worst did happen may help you see that the chances it will happen are slight and that you can handle lesser events.
Judy Bosniadis, a real estate agent in Chapel Hill, NC, uses this strategy to relieve her recurring anxiety that she'll be late for morning meetings in the office.
"The big worry is that the alarm clock won't go off, I'll be late for the meeting and everyone will be upset," she says. "I can really toss and turn over this. So what I do is take each fear and work through it until I've diluted it."
For example, Bosniadis tells herself that not only will the alarm most likely go off on schedule, but a late arrival at the meeting would cause little stir, and it's highly unlikely that she'd be disciplined for tardiness anyway.
"By the time I've gone through all the possibilities, I'm okay," she says.
Soothe Your Soul
Focusing on the here and now can go a long way toward soothing the soul.
To get started, give yourself five minutes to absorb the details of your surroundings: the dishes on the table, the flow of light through the window.
"If I just sit here and look intently at the rose on my table for a couple of minutes, it really helps pull me into a different state," notes Mary Ellen Copeland, M.S., M.A., author of The Worry Control Handbook.
Fill Your Mind
When middle-of-the-night worries loom, challenge yourself to recite the alphabet in random order, without repeating any of the letters.
This task is just tricky enough so that there's no room in your consciousness to think about anything else.
Derailing the Worry Train
For some, an act as simple as snapping a rubber band worn around the wrist or taking a warm, soothing shower can derail the worry train.
"It's about using tactile stimuli to tweak yourself to another place. It's taking action instead of letting the worry act on you," says Dr. Hallowell.
Many worriers are only at ease with certainty, an impossible proposition in life.
Lynn Simon's mother died of cancer when Simon was 11 years old. "Because of her death I worry all the time that I'll get sick, that I'll have to leave my two kids," she explains. Simon's worries are not unreasonable — but they are futile.
Reid Wilson, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, offers this advice: "Tell yourself that overcoming worry requires finding ways to tolerate uncertainty."
As any worrier knows, that's not easy — but it's a goal worth striving for.
Worry or Anger?
In some cases, worry is actually just a cover for anger that's simmering below the surface.
Consider that possibility next time you're brooding over a call from your mother or a child who's having trouble in school.
Actually, anger can be a productive emotion: "Unlike worry, it's outwardly focused and has some energy; it can at least motivate you to action," notes Emery. "You don't even have to express the anger. Just admit it to yourself, then take some action."
Short-circuit worry by taking a walk, petting your dog, reading a chapter in a juicy mystery or doing any other activity that you know will divert your attention and relax you.
Yoga, meditation, a music tape or a few minutes of deep breathing — which lowers the heart rate and, in turn, reduces anxiety — can also help.
Sure, listening to soft, soothing music can lighten your worry load. But another approach, says Reid Wilson, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, is to sing away your woes.
Simply choose a familiar tune, then set your troubles to music. For example, instead of crooning the traditional words to "Mary Had a Little Lamb," imagine warbling, "My credit card bill is going to be late, going to be late, going to be late; my credit rating will be ruined, and I'll never get a mortgage."
Sing your own version of the worry song in your mind, or out loud, for a few minutes, until you feel less anxious.
It works because "the singing makes you feel ridiculous," says Wilson. "And it's very hard to maintain your distress when you're doing something foolish. You step back from the worry and put it in perspective."
Done everything you can possibly do? Then make up your mind to move on. Imagine yourself placing your worries in a box and tossing that box in the trash — for good.
Originally published on October 18, 2007
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