It’s 2:30 in the morning and you’ve been tossing around in bed for who knows how long already. You try three different sleeping positions, punch the pillow, throw the sheets off and pull them back on again but it seems that nothing is going to let you get back to sleep.
It’s not the bed that’s keeping you awake. It’s the worry that won’t let your mind calm down enough to drift off.
Anxiety and stress are some of the most common causes of chronic insomnia. It becomes a vicious circle, though, because difficulty sleeping causes you to be fatigued during the day, which can make the anxiety and stress symptoms worse, which makes it even harder to sleep…
Of course, you can always take a pill. But that only masks the problem and leaves you feeling drugged.
Fortunately, there are some very easy, very effective and completely drug-free ways to deal with those worry-filled, sleepless nights.
Step 1: Get up
That’s right, stop trying to fight your way back to sleep and simply get up and out of bed. The longer you lie there, angry that you’re being deprived of sleep while simultaneously stressing about whatever woke you up in the first place, the worse it’s going to get.
Getting up isn’t giving in to the anxiety, it’s taking control of it. As soon as you decide to act, you’ve regained the power to control what’s going on.
While you might be tempted to stress that you need your sleep and you’ll be useless the next day without it, that line of thinking only revs your anxiety engine even higher. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, “Sleep is overrated – we’ll all be sleeping permanently soon enough!”
Step 2: Get your journal and a pen
Behavioral psychologists and neuro linguistic programming practitioners use a method called ‘Pattern Interrupt’ to break out of a particular thought, behavior or situation. The process interrupts the ‘thought rut’ you’re stuck in and lets you regain control of your mind.
So in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep, get up, find a comfy chair, turn on a soft lamp and sit down with your journal. It’s vital that your journal be one in which you write with a pen or pencil, not notes you type on your laptop or tablet. This is because the kinesthetic act of writing adds to the interruption of thought patterns that have been keeping you awake in two ways.
First, it diverts part of your thinking into the physical act of writing. When your neurons are directed at moving your arm, wrist and fingers to form letters on the page, they can’t be wrapped around what you did or failed to do in the past, ought to do in the future, or the responsibilities that you’re sure you can’t meet.
Second, the act of writing somehow lets the anxious thoughts flow out of your brain, down your arm, out through your fingers and onto the page. After you’ve spent five minutes writing, you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed you feel.
Step 3: Celebrate
Writing about the worries and stresses that are keeping you awake is only going to wind you up tighter. So stay away from those topics by interrupting the pattern even further. Instead, write about your successes.
Start by making a list of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. Review the various categories including sports, academics, your social life, skills you acquired and challenges you overcame. Did you ever win a ribbon in a sports event? Earn a merit badge in your Scout or Guide troop? Did you write a poem or a story? Jump off the high board at the local pool?
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow with pride all over again. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their time, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to succeed anyway.
Step 4: Act
The journal exercise alone is probably making you feel better already. If you pause for a moment and examine your feelings, you’ll likely discover that the stress and anxiety – whether about the situation or about the lack of sleep – have already been dialed way back. Take a moment to recognize that you’ve managed to interrupt the anxiety and control your mind instead of it controlling you. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
Now, however, it’s time to turn your mind back to whatever situation was keeping you awake. Only now you’re in charge and going to do something about it. Using your journal, ask and answer the following questions.
For example, if you’re worrying about finances you could, in the next 15 minutes as you sit in your comfy chair, begin to make yourself a strict budget for the next three months. If you’re worrying about a relationship you could write a letter to the person with whom you’re at odds. (But don't send it until after you've reviewed it in the light of day.) If you’re worried about a health issue you could write the outline of a diet and exercise program for yourself.
Regardless of the situation that has you worried, concerned or anxious, there is always something that you can do, even in the middle of the night, that will help alleviate your stress. And in taking that action, you will immediately feel better. Because you did something that broke your mind out of that endless cycle. Because you took control.
Step 5: Go back to bed
If you’ve taken the previous steps you will find that your mind is much more at ease, that your body is ready for sleep and that you’ll be able to close your eyes and drift off easily. When you lay your head back on the pillow, allow your thoughts to be on the successes you’ve achieved and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Revel in the pride of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re still the same person who has achieved so much already. Let your brain be filled with the positive, proactive steps you’ve already taken and will continue to take in the morning.
These thoughts won’t last long, though, because before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
Over the last few weeks, as the year has been winding down, I’ve been thrilled by the many messages I’ve been receiving from readers like you who are looking for answers on how to rid themselves of worry, anxiety and self-doubt. Of the many questions that you’ve been posing, there are three that seem to be a common challenge for many people:
What can I do in the middle of the night when the anxiety looms so large that it won’t let me sleep?
I seem to have made a wrong decision a while ago and now I’m worried that I’ve messed up my life. How can I NOT be anxious?
How can I help someone close to me who is suffering from anxiety?
When we launched i-fearless earlier this year, we’d hoped to establish a forum and a dialogue that would help people set down this awkward, overbearing and entirely unnecessary burden. It’s clear that we’ve been successful but it’s also clear that there is plenty of room to raise the bar.
Now, at the dawn of both a new year and a new decade, and because they involve you, I want to share some intentions, resolutions and commitments that are my obvious and welcome next steps.
I resolve to:
Continue to learn everything I can, and practice everything I learn about living a worry-free life.
Provide practical, results-oriented suggestions in response to every question that every reader poses about overcoming worry, anxiety and self-doubt.
Bring you the techniques, resources, encouragement and inspiration that you need to live your own worry-free life in pursuit of your own dreams.
Provide as many options as possible for you to access this knowledge including blogs, books, podcasts, videos, courses, workshops and any other channel that we can harness.
But I’m also going to ask you to consider three resolutions of your own. I ask you to resolve to:
Believe that it is entirely possible to unplug from the fear and untangle the net of anxiety and self-doubt that keeps you from exploring your limitless human potential.
Talk to me. Let me know about the anxieties that are holding you back from the promises you’ve made to yourself so that I can share the methods that will let you take command of your life.
Share with others. We all know someone who is struggling with this ridiculous and unnecessary burden. Let them know about i-fearless. Encourage them to subscribe to the blog. Show them that there is an answer.
It sucks to be worried all the time. It sucks to be afraid of looking foolish, being rejected, being criticized or the judgment of others. Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
I invite you to let 2020 be the year you hit that ‘off’ switch.
The holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year. But, by adopting three simple mental habits, you can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate anxiety as an unhealthy ingredient in your eggnog.
Technique #1: I scare myself by imagining…
Behind all worry and anxiety is a desire for something we want combined with a fear that an unwanted event or consequence is going to land on your head.
For example, you’re out shopping for a gift for your mother-in-law and the anxiety is running high. If your dig deep, you’re likely to discover that the problem isn’t the lack of choice, it’s the monologue in your brain that’s imagining her disapproval when she doesn’t like your gift.
Or you’re dressing for your significant-other’s company party. Your closet is full of clothes but the self-talk is all about the judgment that you imagine everyone else is going to pass on you. Too flashy. Too revealing. Too drab and boring!
While it’s not exclusive, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. We scare ourselves by imagining that other people will observe our – baking, gift-giving, attire, behavior, timeliness, whatever – and find it lacking. The far more likely truth is that the others are secretly awed by your baking, grateful for your gift and jealous of your attire.
Once you’ve identified the fear that’s behind the anxiety, though, it’s much easier to be logical, rational and even a bit humorous about it. So what if Cousin Beth, whom you haven’t seen for five years and likely won’t for another five, thinks your tie is too loud? How, exactly is that going to affect your life?
The technique is to take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing each sentence like this:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
I want to serve a perfect holiday dinner and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll overcook the turkey and forget the pie.
I want to impress my fiancés parents and I scare myself by imagining that they won’t like my gift and encourage him to leave me.
I want to look my best for the company holiday party and I scare myself by imagining that my boss will disapprove of how I dress.
I want to keep the weight I’ve come down to this year and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll give in to peer pressure to eat and drink too much.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’ Try a few of these mental scenarios for yourself and you might quickly feel more detached from and ready to be in control of the anxious thoughts that seem to invade and occupy your mind at this time of year.
Technique #2: Have to/Choose to
Around the holidays we all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we CHOOSE to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the holiday things that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
Buy gifts for the people in your life
Travel to see family under very challenging conditions
Attend too many social functions
Eat and drink more than normal
Spend too much
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t buy gifts, don’t travel to see family and don’t go to parties. But, you might say, there are social pressures – especially from family – that force you to do these things. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things – family feuds, broken relationships – happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If you believe that there is anything at all that you absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing you to, you completely surrender your power to live your own life. In every single instance, you hold and make the choice.
Let’s look at an example:
I have to go home for Christmas.
If I don't go home for Christmas, my mother will never let me hear the end of it.
If my mother comes down on me, my life will be miserable.
If I’m miserable, my friends won’t want to be with me.
Given the choice, I'd rather go home for Christmas than lose my friends.
Of course, there are also people who would rather suffer their family’s wrath than travel through winter conditions and sleep on the pullout couch. The choices you have might not be great ones, but it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice.
Technique #3: 100% for 50%
Gift-giving can be such a minefield!
Did I spend enough? Did I spend too much? Did I express the right amount of sentiment? Did I express too much?
As we said earlier, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. And it’s not just in the area of gifts. You’ve taken an action – given a gift, worn a particular dress, visited for two hours – and you are worried how the other person might interpret that action, and subsequently judge you.
Here’s a thought that I find to be enormously helpful at this time of year:
You are 100% responsible for 50% of the relationship.
That means that you are responsible for giving the gift for the right reasons, visiting with love and caring in your heart and wearing the clothes that best express the real you. If you can honestly say that you have done these things, your work is finished.
How anyone else reacts to what you’ve done is completely out of your control. And, frankly, none of your business. That half of the relationship is in their hands.
For example, you agree to visit your parents and stay for two nights. You made that decision because you, and only you, are able to assess your priorities, your schedule and your tolerance. If you have made the commitment to be there for 48 hours, make those the best parent-visiting two days anyone has ever had. Give them your full attention. Bring all the love you have for them. Engage fully with them and appreciate everything they are and have been to you.
But when it’s time to leave and the guilt about staying longer is being handed out, it’s got nothing to do with you. That’s their 50%.
Many people are only too happy to hand you the full load of the relationship. “If you don’t do these things I want you to do, it’ll be your fault that I’m unhappy.”
The classic example is the newly married couple or the young parents. Which set of parents should we see? If you accept the guilt trips that many people are more than happy to hand out, you set yourself up for a lose-lose situation.
Take 100% responsibility for your half of the relationship. Then leave the other half to them.
The holidays are on top of us and along with the pretty lights, gifts, delicious food and sense of wonder we all enjoy, come the feelings of obligation that many of us experience regarding family, friends, co-workers, charitable giving and countless other social norms.
You don’t really want to go to that neighborhood party, but…
Uncle George is so obnoxious, but…
Your budget has no room for that many gifts, but…
Another drink is the last thing you want right now, but…
You genuinely don’t want a second helping, but…
I’m sure you had no problem completing those sentences. I’m equally sure that those ‘but’s’ were based on one version or another of the expectations that are laid on us by others – most of whom claim to love us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of the specifics or sources of the expectations, the ‘should’s’ that dictate so much of our behavior can be a huge source of anxiety and self-doubt. The gap between your focus on a healthy lifestyle and the pressure you’re feeling to drink too much at the office party is the anxiety you feel. The bigger the gap, the greater the anxiety.
Of course, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that the tension is actually between our desire for the healthy lifestyle and our desire for the good opinion of others. What will they think of me if I don’t attend the party? What will my mother say if I cut way back on my gift buying this year? We start to question our own judgment and wonder if we’re somehow weird or stupid.
Our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that still get in the way of our growth today. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
The most heinous crime you can commit on yourself is to live an inauthentic life. To live a life that someone else has told you that you should. Mokokoma Mokhonoana is a mystic, philosopher, yogi, and social critic from South Africa. He writes that “plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: An orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas, instead of dying, the average person would rather be someone they are not.”
So how can you control the ‘shoulding’ in your life this holiday season?
Start by being aware of when it’s happening. Set a little part of your brain aside to serve as your third-party observer and ask it to send up a flare when you find yourself being pressured to do something that’s against your better judgment or that you simply don’t want to do.
When the flare goes up, take a moment and analyze the tension. Try to dissect its exact source. Is it an old habit that’s trying to resurface? An unhealthy desire to please others? Knowing the precise source of your anxiety is a huge step towards controlling and even overcoming it.
Next, take control of the ‘should.’ Recognize it for what it is and decide how much of it you will give in to. Perhaps you’ll decide to go to the party, but only stay a short while. Or maybe you agree to a second helping of pie, but insist on a very small piece. If they force a huge piece on you, eat two bites and leave the rest. If you choose to participate in gift-giving, recognize that maintaining your own fiscal health is far more important than keeping up appearances for others. Look for creative, low-cost options or give a single gift instead of multiple.
As your confidence grows you’ll find that resisting or even ignoring the ‘shoulds’ altogether gets easier. By limiting the control that those external ‘shoulds’ hold over you, you let yourself and others know that your desires and preferences are valid and worthy of respect.
As you insist on respecting your own desires and preferences, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s surprising how often we, too, participate in the ‘shoulding’ of others, often without even realizing it. Cut the other person some slack. Let them observe (or not observe) the holidays in the way they choose.
As Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Ya gotta love the holiday season! Regardless of whose team you play for, or how sacred or secular you choose to be, the final month of the year is all about joy. And heaven knows that we could all use a lot more joy in our lives!
But why aren’t we more joyful? It’s easy to claim that it’s hard (even foolish?) to be joyful when the world is such a dreadful place. How can anyone be joyful in the face of terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship and uncertain economies? Well, it turns out that the secret to joy is simply choosing to be joyful. And there are plenty of role models if you need some coaching.
Take Nelson Mandela. The guy spent 27 years in prison. What did he do when he got out? He worked arm-in-arm with the people who put him there to fix what was wrong with the country; his thoughts on reconciliation, not revenge. Here’s a guy who had plenty to be pissed about, but have you ever seen a picture of him when he wasn’t smiling?
How about Gandhi? He didn’t exactly have it easy either. Born into and living under an oppressive and brutal occupation by the British, he decided to turn logic on its head and fight violence, not with more violence, but with its opposite. His non-violent approach resulted in him taking a lot of flak, but it also led to Indian independence, not to mention successful civil rights movements around the world. Like Mandela, though, just try to find a photo of him where he’s not brimming with joy.
Or Mother Teresa. She hardly spent her life in the lap of luxury. In fact she spent most of it in the gutters and hell-holes of Calcutta, tending to the lowest of the low, in the most decrepit and disgusting conditions imaginable. But find a picture in which she’s not positively glowing? Can’t be done.
I never had the privilege of meeting them in person, but I bet Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed and all those other greats were total cut-ups. Laughing all the time, joking, enjoying their friends, enjoying life. And, yes, smiling and joyful. Why don’t we ever see pictures of these guys smiling and laughing? Why do we interpret them as being so somber, solemn and serious? I think they would have been a hoot to hang out with! And in the midst of the joy, they’d teach me how to be a better, more joyful person myself.
The angel over Bethlehem was not recorded as saying, “I bring you somber news of great seriousness that should make you all dismal and subdued.” We’re told that it said, “I bring you good news of great joy.” And that message isn’t restricted to the Bible either. You’ll find it in every great, inspiring book we’ve got.
One of the holiday season’s wonderful movies is 2003’s Love Actually. Created by British screenwriter Richard Curtis, it opens with actor Hugh Grant narrating what I think is a joyful sentiment that puts it all in perspective for us.
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.
Our flight was delayed an hour and we had to run like maniacs through the airport to make the connection.
Our internet service has been spotty lately and I had to endure high blood pressure, severe annoyance and likely additional hair loss as I dealt with the service rep on the phone.
I took my car in for some repairs last week and $600 later there’s still a leak in the cooling system.
Oh, I could go on.
But when I catch myself wallowing in the problems that plague my life, I like to stop, do a little mental pivot, and see this disaster from a different perspective.
We made the flight and, somehow, the miracle-working baggage handlers got our suitcases onto the next flight in four minutes flat! The aircraft mechanics had ensured the plane was flight-ready, the ramp crew loaded it with fuel, the pilots got us safely home and the flight attendant asked if I’d prefer red or white. Thanks, Delta!
The tech support actually fixed the problem quickly and I can again reach every corner of the globe from the lazy comfort of my couch. Thanks, Apple, Google and Xfinity!
I have a comfortable, reliable (and even slightly indulgent) car that I can drive anywhere I want in comfort and style. I have a conscientious and skilled mechanic who is more upset than me that we have to take a second look. Thanks BMW and Autobahn Service Center!
I’ve got problems all right.
I also have blessings. More than I could ever begin to count. And the blessings I enjoy so staggeringly overwhelm whatever I might label as a problem, that I’m ashamed when I catch myself complaining about anything.
To even describe them as ‘First World’ problems would give my so-called trials more weight and importance and give myself more self-indulgence than either of us deserve.
I think about the fires in California. I think about El Paso and Dayton. I think about children around the world who are hungry, thirsty, lonely and scared.
I have no problems. Only gratitude. And obligations.
People who are consistently successful get up and do what needs to be done. They start something. Then they learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and try again. In this process they build momentum and either achieve their goals or something even better than they dreamed.
I’m a big fan of Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books and author of The Success Principles. In his live seminars he demonstrates how those of us who are trapped by worry and anxiety frequently stop ourselves from taking action.
He begins by holding up a hundred-dollar bill and asking if anyone in the audience would like it. Then he waits.
Many raise their hand. Some call out that they want the money. But typically there are only a few people who actually come to the stage to get the money. When they do, he gives it to them and they sit down, a hundred dollars richer for their efforts. Jack then points out that the person with the money did something no one else did—they took the necessary action to get the hundred dollars.
Too many of us think about stepping up and taking action, but then stop ourselves. When he asks the audience why they didn’t just come up and take the bill, the answers are typically:
I didn’t want to look like I wanted or needed it that badly.
I wasn’t sure if you would really give it to me.
I was too far back in the room.
Other people need it more than I do.
I didn’t want to look greedy.
I was afraid I might be doing something wrong and then people would judge me or laugh at me.
I was waiting for further instructions.
How many of these excuses are preventing you from getting on with the things you want to accomplish? How often has part of you wanted to make progress on solving the problem, but another part of you held yourself back, waiting for a better time, waiting for more instructions or concerned that someone might judge you?
Every time a viable action is warranted but you hesitate, delay, or fail to act, you rob yourself of a little bit of life. And you condemn yourself to a life of “coulda,” and “shoulda.”
We spend way too much time waiting for conditions to be just right. We wait for reassurance, inspiration, the right timing, the economy to improve, the kids to leave home, the rain to stop, a clear set of instructions, the alignment of the planets.
I once heard it said that the best time to plant a tree was twenty-five years ago. The second-best time is right now. What, exactly, are you waiting for? Permission? Perfect conditions? Guarantees? They’re not coming. So just go ahead and leap.
We also frequently find ourselves in situations where action is needed, but you don’t have the skills, knowledge, or resources to take that action yourself. You need to ask for help. Which is another stumbling block that keeps so many people stuck in neutral. None of us can do everything alone, and asking for help is a wonderful and valuable skill that the world’s most successful people have mastered.
What do you need help with? Do you need to call someone to ask for information? Do you need to ask to borrow money? Do you need to ask for a recommendation or introduction? Do you need to ask for a job? Do you need to ask for a simple helping hand?
We live in a society that is uncomfortable with asking for help. Which is actually a bit surprising because the vast majority of people are only too happy to help us. Altruism is a natural human instinct. We’re just afraid to ask.
What are we afraid of?
We don’t want to look needy. We don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to feel inferior or beholden. We don’t want to impose on anyone. And the more we hide behind those fears, the less we’re able to accomplish and the more we stay stuck in our narrow little rut.
Challenge yourself today – no, in the next 15 minutes! – to take an action that you’ve been putting off. Ask yourself why you’ve been procrastinating on this; what it is that you’ve been fearing. Looking needy? Being judged?
C’mon! Life’s too short to sit around waiting for the kids to leave home or the sun to come out. Let’s go! Right now!
In the same way that you can’t live your entire life without experiencing the occasional bad weather day, it’s impossible to completely avoid all fear. Fear is a natural—and useful—response to threatening situations.
Worry and anxiety, though, are completely optional and your life would be much happier, more peaceful, and more successful without them. What might a worry- and anxiety-free life feel like? A worry-free person:
It’s entirely possible for you to become that worry-free person. It requires, first, that you want to. It will require that you put in effort and break some old habits. But it won’t be as challenging or take nearly as long as you think.
Nathaniel Branden was a psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem. He said that self-esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.” He also believed that, while parents, teachers, friends, and others can nurture and support your self-esteem, if it’s to be really effective, it’s primarily a do-it-yourself job.
From the point of your conception to this very moment, the world around you has been teaching you to worry and doubt yourself. Everybody else worries, so it only makes sense that you should too. There’s even a so-called joke that goes something like, “If you’re not worried, it’s because you haven’t realized how bad things are.”
We see worry all around us every day. Our common language encourages us to worry with phrases such as, “Oh, that’s worrisome!” “Mom’s worried about you.” “I’d be worried if I were you.” It’s assumed we’re supposed to worry and we don’t ever question the wisdom of it. After all, it’s a time- honored practice.
Do you remember the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It’s a classic example of the kind of ‘groupthink’ that has us all believing that anxiety is simply a fact of life. It doesn’t have to be.
We also like to pass along our personal paranoias. According to The Washington Post, America’s most common fears are:
1. Public speaking
3. Bugs and Insects
6. Enclosed in small spaces
9. Zombies (really!)
A parent who has a fear of strangers, for example, is likely to insist that his or her children should avoid them and fill their young minds with all the terrible things that will happen, should they encounter a stranger. As a result, the otherwise normally balanced child grows up believing that strangers (or airplanes, or doctor’s needles, or tall buildings) are to be avoided at all costs. The fears are irrational, but the training is effective.
In addition to instilling fears and phobias, our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that continue to stymie our growth well into, or even throughout our adult lives. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
I think it’s time we all stopped shoulding all over ourselves.
Every infant knows exactly what it wants and doesn’t hesitate to ask for it. You knew the foods you liked and spit out the ones you didn’t. You knew when you wanted to sleep and when you wanted to be held. When you become mobile you saw what you wanted and headed straight for it. And that’s when the admonitions began:
- Don’t touch that!
- Keep your hands to yourself.
- Eat everything on your plate.
- You don’t really feel that way.
- You don’t really want that.
- You should be ashamed of yourself!
As you got older it morphed into…
- Stop crying. Don’t be such a baby.
- You can’t have everything you want simply because you want it.
- Money doesn’t grow on trees.
- Stop being so selfish!
- Stop doing what you are doing and come do what I want you to do!
It doesn’t take much of this before you throw up your hands and conclude that your desires, your wishes, your preferences don’t matter, so why bother? It’s a waste of emotional energy to have dreams of your own.
If you buy into this swindle, the secret to success is to figure out what everybody else wants you to do. To learn to please others and find ways to get their approval, whether it makes you feel good or not.
- You became an engineer because that’s what Dad wanted you to do
- You married that guy because everybody else was getting married
- You became a lawyer because everyone said that you’d never make a living as an artist
You became so sensible that you completely lost touch with who you really are and what you really want. And in the process, you took on one of the biggest and most common worries of all: What do other people think of me?
Take a few minutes and think back to your childhood, your youth and your adulthood. You might find it useful to journal a few of your thoughts about the origins of your own worry habits. How were you taught to worry? What were you told? What did you observe? How did some of your childhood, teenage and young adult experiences launch or reinforce any worry habits? How did any of those experiences initiate any self-doubts you might have?
Yes, we’ve been attending worry lessons our entire lives. But in all that time, no one has ever pointed out the simple truth that worry doesn’t help anything. Nothing has ever changed as a result of worrying about it. We worry because we’ve been conditioned to. A newborn has an instinctive fear of falling and loud noises. Everything else is learned and conditioned
You learned how to worry. Now it’s time to unlearn.
For way too many people, worry and anxiety are the normal, default emotional state. The phone rings and you assume it’s someone calling with bad news. There’s a knock at the door and your first thought is that it’s the police, coming to inform you that your son has been in an accident. The school sends a note home with your child and, before you’ve even opened it, you’re convinced it has to do with a behavior problem.
Why do our minds always and immediately go to the worst possible negative outcome? Why doesn’t my mind, instead, respond, “I bet it’s Publisher’s Clearing House with my million-dollar check!” Or, “They probably want him to represent the school at the United Nations!” Why do we imagine all the things that could go wrong but never give equal time to consider, list and weigh everything that could go right? Why is our default position always to instantly imagine all the horrible outcomes that are likely to befall us?
Turns out that there are two reasons for this.
The first is that our brains are naturally wired with something called a ‘negativity bias.’ This means that, through millions of years of evolution, our brains have grown to be more sensitive to bad news than good. Dr. John Cacioppo was a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. In studies that he conducted when he was at Ohio State University, he showed that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive. Our attitudes are more significantly influenced by bad news than by good.
It makes sense, too. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain with systems that made us notice, and respond to danger. Today, the tigers are long gone but that biology is still with us. Now, instead of noticing a charging mastodon, our negativity bias is alerting us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis. As Hara Estroff Marano wrote in Psychology Today, “Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”
The second reason is that, from the earliest age, we’ve been trained and conditioned to worry.
And I do mean earliest! Numerous scientific studies indicate that anxiety in the mother during pregnancy can have significant mental and behavioral effects on the child as it grows up. The results of one study showed that high levels of maternal anxiety have a “significant relation with mental disorders, emotional problems, lack of concentration and hyperactivity and impaired cognitive development of children.” The same study also concluded that anxiety during pregnancy can lead to “irritability and restlessness, individual differences in reaction to stressful life events and more fear in dealing with life events.” Another study concluded that both physiological and emotional/mental effects of prenatal anxiety continue into infancy and childhood. Mental and emotional effects can include “greater negative emotionality and in infants, lower mental development scores and internalizing problems. Anxiety disorders occur during childhood and elevated cortisol and internalizing behaviors occur during adolescence.”
None of this means, however, that you can’t lessen your own anxiety levels. In fact, simply knowing the origins of your own unease begins to make it far easier to walk away from.
Perhaps your mother was completely Zen-like during her pregnancy and you emerged as balanced and unblemished as can be. Immediately, and rightly, your parents began to look after and protect you.
Think about the advice that all caring parents give to their children: “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t forget to wash your hands – you don’t want to get sick.” “Be careful on the way home from school.” “Your hand will turn green and fall off if you keep doing that!”
To be sure, the advice about not talking to strangers is excellent – when you’re eight years old and walking home from school alone. But when you’re 26 or 56 and still cringing when someone you don’t know walks up and rings your doorbell, things are out of control. While it’s good that our parents taught us to be cautious, they should also have taught us when it’s okay to back off on the yellow alerts. All the admonitions taught us to be basically untrusting and wary of the world around us.
It’s also a very good idea to wash your hands regularly. But when you carry a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go, wiping down every surface you plan to touch, it’s reached a level of anxiety that borders on paranoia. Our biology provides us with an immune system that’s designed to filter out the germs without any help from Purell. In fact, your immune system needs to encounter and learn about new bacteria all the time if it’s to remain robust and effective. If we’re constantly killing off all the germs on the shopping cart handle before our bodies have a chance to encounter and learn how to deal with them, it’ll lose its ability to ward off disease. Then, like the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs when they encountered the first Europeans, our bodies won’t stand a chance to fend for themselves when some new virus sneaks past the Handi Wipe.
There is no doubt that there are some things out there of which we need to be cautious. But let’s recognize that the vast majority of people, events and circumstances we encounter every day aren’t just benign, they’re downright beneficial, delightful and good.
We all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we choose to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the things in life that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t pay their taxes, don’t take care of their children and don’t phone their mothers. But, you might say, there are institutions that will make you pay your taxes, go to school and take care of your children. And your mother might be pretty good at ‘making’ you phone her. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If we believe that there is anything at all that we absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing us to, we again surrender our power. In every single instance, we hold and make the choice. Let’s look at an example:
But let’s say you don’t mind being broke…
Of course, there are also people who would rather go to jail than pay their taxes, reveal their secret information source, renounce their beliefs, etc. Although the choices you have might not be great ones, it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
Worry and anxiety are also choices that we make. Let’s take a common example: You’re driving to work and there’s a big traffic jam. You begin to worry that you’re going to be late. That worry turns into a worry that, being late, you’ll miss the important meeting. Which turns into a worry about the boss’s opinion of you. Which turns into a worry about job security. Which turns into…
When you arrive late to work, you tell the boss, “The traffic made me late.” In blaming the traffic, you have chosen to be a victim of circumstances beyond your control. And as you sat in the traffic jam and your blood pressure went up, you chose to blame the traffic for your blood pressure too. Both these choices leave you powerless.
Let’s change things up and see if we are as much of a victim as we sometimes like to claim.
Let’s say the morning’s meeting was to announce you as the next Senior Vice President and the position came with a $50,000 bonus. It was conditional, however, on you being on time for the meeting. Do you think you could have found a way to be there on time? If the bonus was $500,000, would you have left the house at 3 am or even slept in the boardroom overnight to be sure you were there? I bet you could be pretty ingenious at overcoming obstacles if we put the stakes high enough.
Which highlights the truth that you are not a victim of the traffic, you made a choice to risk the (highly predictable) heavy traffic. It was more important for you to get up at your regular time and have your regular breakfast than it was to be at the meeting on time, so you chose sleep time and breakfast over the consequences at work. Having made that choice, it’s pointless to then worry about what the boss might think. If, on the other hand, you chose to make sure you were at the meeting on time, it’s pointless to worry about your lost sleep.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice. Victim mentality, blaming and complaining weaken our ability to make clear, conscious choices.
There’s a cute little movie from 2006 starring Queen Latifah called ‘Last Holiday’ in which she plays a shy, unassuming store clerk. She longs to be a professional chef and records her dreams of a better life in a journal labeled, "Possibilities." But rather than stepping up to her possibilities, she carefully saves her money for that rainy day, never colors outside the lines and lives a drab, unfulfilling life. When she’s diagnosed with a fatal illness and given just a few weeks to live, she liquidates her savings and embarks on her dream vacation.
As she’s contemplating the dream life that never materialized, she reflects, “Next time... we will laugh more, we'll love more; we just won't be so afraid.”
Are you deciding from a place of fear?
How many decisions do we each make every day? A few big ones, dozens of mid-sized ones and hundreds of tiny, little choices. We like to believe that we’re rational, logical humans and that we arrive at our choices and decisions with equal rationale and logic. But the truth is that virtually none of our decisions are made from logic, they’re made from a place of emotion. And far too often, the emotions that drive our decisions are fear, worry, anxiety and self-doubt.
“If I go away with him for the weekend, what will my Mother say?” “What if my boss sees that I posted that on Facebook?” “I don’t have the nerve to tell my partners that I want to start my own company.”
There are two sides to every decision
Every decision has two sides – one is to go after what you DO want. The other is to avoid what you DON’T want. The first is made from a place of faith, courage and growth. The other is made from a place of fear.
More often than not, though, we’re completely unaware of these dynamics. It wasn’t until I was well into my 50s that I began to realize how many of my decisions had been made to avoid things I was afraid of or because of self-limiting beliefs I’d picked up along the way. I spent most of my adult years with unstable finances because I grew up believing that it was only other people who could be rich. I undervalued my services because I was afraid my customers would leave if I charged more. It took 60 years for me to finally take up painting because I doubted I would be very good at it.
What decisions have you made from fear or self-limiting beliefs? What decisions are you facing now?
Is it courage or fear?
Here’s how you can tell the real motive behind your choice. When you’re in the process of making a decision, even a little one, get quiet for a moment and try this statement: “I’m deciding in this way because…” If you finish the sentence with a list of the negative outcomes you’ll avoid, you’re deciding from a place of fear. But if you can finish the statement with a list of the benefits you and others are going to enjoy, then you’re deciding from a place of courage and possibility.
You’ve heard the old challenge, “What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?” That delicious little thought experiment always opens the flood gates to our dreams. A smile comes over our face, we sit up straighter and start to recite our favorite bucket list items.
How many of your decisions are made from a position of courage and confidence? How many from a place of fear?
It's entirely possible to live a worry-free life. But a worry-free life is not and should not be a fear-free life.
Fear is a natural and extremely useful response that humans share with many, much simpler organisms. I live in a neighborhood that is heavily wooded and we share the area with a very healthy population of white-tailed deer. These animals are notoriously nervous and run at the slightest sign of danger. But, like all species with some level of intelligence, they’re also able to learn. It’s been interesting to watch as the deer have slowly come to realize that humans (at least in this neighborhood) are not a threat and the deer comfortably stand and watch as we walk or drive by.
Our fears diminish
You’re much smarter than any white-tailed deer and capable of learning much more complex concepts, much more quickly. Throughout your life, one of the patterns of your learning has been to decrease the number of things that you’re afraid of. When you were a very young child you might have been scared of the dark, thunder and even Santa Claus. When you were older you were afraid to jump off the high board at the swimming pool, ask a girl (or a boy) to dance, and speak in front of the class.
With every new accomplishment, self-confidence grows, your comfort zone expands and your fears decrease. Where you once couldn’t have imagined going into the big city alone, today you do it every day on the way to work. Where once you were a white-knuckle flyer, now you’re a seasoned road warrior. We all experience a level of fear when we are about to step up our game and try something new. But we analyze the fear, the risk-reward ratio, we learn how to reduce and manage the risks and we go for it. After just a few times we’ve mastered a new set of skills, fear has been completely replaced with confidence and you’ve grown into a bigger, better someone than you used to be.
Good news! You have more fearful times yet to look forward to!
As long as you continue to challenge yourself and raise the bar with new experiences, you will face at least some level of fear. If it’s an invitation to go skinny-dipping with the sharks off Australia or base-jumping from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the fear may be intense, the risk-reward calculation unappealing and you might decide to take a pass. But if the challenge is to apply for a promotion at work or write that book you’ve had in your head for years the fears are entirely manageable and you’ll feel fantastic after you’ve overcome them. Your fear lets you know that you are standing at the perimeter of your comfort zone. You have the choice to maintain the status quo by running back to the middle or step outside that line and grow.
Fear demands a decision
Fear demands a decision about your next action. The psychologists call it ‘fight or flight’ but the choice implies that you’ll choose an action – run away or charge. Worry and anxiety, on the other hand, are states of inaction. Our friendly white-tail is frozen in the headlights. When you allow worry and anxiety to take over, you freeze and you stop growing.
Henry Ford, one of the great innovators of the last century, once famously said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, the only obstacle to your success is your firm belief that the odds that are stacked against you are insurmountable.
The world we inhabit today is vastly different than the one we lived in yesterday. The rules have changed dramatically and it makes a lot of us uncomfortable.
You hear it every day:
Social media is so full of hateful statements!
Why has the world become so divided and partisan?
We need to do something about the wealth inequality
The world seems to have lost all sense of decency
Who’s fault is it?
It’s both easy and convenient to place blame. The boss who fails to understand your value, the friends who don’t support you, even the planets that fail to align in your favor. Regardless of whose fault you declare it to be, when the dust has settled, the challenges remain leaving you with two choices. Give up and go home. Or find some way to climb over, knock down or bust through the wall that blocks your path.
The wall you’re facing right now is called ‘change.’ It’s the need for you to accept that the strategies and tactics that got you this far aren’t going to get you much farther in this rapidly changing world.
I’ve seen so much resistance to change that I could sell it by the pound. Excuses fly thick and fast and the rationalizing that explains why the status quo is the best plan could float a ship.
Change your inner monologue
If we accept that ‘ol Henry was right, then the change that must be made begins by taking out the trash that’s in your head. Every time you catch yourself thinking that something is unlikely, improbable or impossible, stop. Catch yourself, think about Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elon Musk, and then ask yourself if your little challenge is truly insurmountable.
It’s been called possibility thinking, positivity, optimism and ‘what can be.’ Napoleon Hill, a contemporary of Ford’s and author of the incredible book, ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ said, “What the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve.” It doesn’t mean it will be easy or obvious, but it will always be possible.
All your growth has taken place outside your comfort zone
It is almost guaranteed that the solution will lie outside your comfort zone. But the truth is, all growth happens at the edges of our comfort zones. Everything that’s good that ever happened in your life was out of your comfort zone at some point.
You don’t have to jump way outside of it, but start with some baby steps. Stick your toe in the water and dare yourself to try something different. Open yourself to the possibility that the kid with the tattoos and the purple hair, the old retired guy or anybody who doesn’t look or think like you just might have some really good ideas that are worth listening to. Open yourself to the radical notion that the thoughts that live so comfortable in your head just might be your biggest impediment.
It’s a strange – and wonderful – new world
The world doesn’t look the same anymore. And isn’t that great news?! Just as has been the case whenever the world has changed, there are more opportunities than problems. They just don’t look like they used to. It’s time to step up and decide that this exciting, strange new world is the one that you’re going to conquer.
Helen Keller, another contemporary of Ford’s and resident of an unimaginably challenging world once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, within three years, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters are typically back behind bars.
We can have all manner of debate about the criminal justice system, but one significant factor that contributes to this high recidivism rate is a characteristic we all share, regardless of which side of the law we find ourselves on.
We don’t like surprises
We’re all intimately familiar with our comfort zone. That’s the sum of the surroundings, the behaviors, the companions, the habits of thinking in which we feel safe and secure. In this place, with these people and these activities, I know what’s likely to happen on any given day. There are few surprises and few big challenges.
A significant number of repeat felons commit a crime in order to get back into jail because it’s frightening to be out in the world and responsible for themselves. “Prison may not be the nicest place, but they give me three squares and I know how things work.” Whether these thoughts are conscious or subconscious, the results are the same.
Finding your happy place
The rest of us exhibit the same behavior – we find that place, those people, those habits, those opinions, that food, with which we’re most comfortable, and we stay there. Should anything happen to move us out of that safe place, we take quick action – conscious or subconscious – to get ourselves back into that familiar, comfy place.
Surprisingly, this even applies when the new situation we’ve found ourselves in is objectively better. As much as many of us struggle to lose those extra pounds, if the scale tells you that you’ve gone above what has become your ‘comfortable’ weight, it’s usually not too hard to cut back on the pasta and do the extra sit-ups that will bring us back to the weight that we see for ourselves. Go too far below that, though, and we quickly self-sabotage in some way to get things back to normal.
All growth happens at the perimeter of your comfort zone
It’s familiar, safe and easy in the center of your comfort zone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no growth can happen there. From the safety of that place it’s impossible to learn a new skill, begin a different relationship, start a new career or accomplish anything you haven’t before.
So what if, instead of thinking of a ‘comfort zone,’ we begin to think of it as a ‘comfort prison,’ with a high fence, razor wire and guard towers? A jail with steel bars that trap you in one spot and take away the freedom to pursue your dreams?
Every hope and every dream lies outside that comfort prison. In order to achieve them, we’re going to have to cut those bars, scale those walls and break out. And when we realize that we are both prisoner and jailer, that the walls are entirely self-imposed, we’re faced with a tough choice. We can continue to blame genetics, birth order, the boss, the economy, the weather or the alignment of the planets. Or we can dare to take that first intimidating step outside and realize that those prison bars, those boundaries of our comfort zones are flexible, infinitely expandable, and completely imaginary.
Fear is a response to a real and present danger and it always demands a decision about your next action: Fight or Flight? Are you going to turn-tail and run? Or are you going to stand your ground and fight back? Because of the immediacy of the threat we’re forced to quickly choose which action we’re going to take and then get on with it. NOW!
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are much more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle about what’s going to happen to us and what, if anything, we should do. And the muddling goes on, and on, and on.
Paralyzed by worry
For example, I live on the southeast coast of the US. Every year, as summer winds down, hurricane season winds up along with the palpable anxiety that you can almost feel in the air. The problem with hurricanes is that you can see them coming for weeks ahead. It’s a slow-motion threat that gives you way too much time to think about all the horrible things that might happen. Everyone is glued to their screens watching the path and strength predictions from the various weather monitoring agencies. Are we watching the Navy Model? The American Model? The European Model? How about a conglomeration of them all? I’ve never inquired, but I’d be willing to bet that benzos prescriptions in the southeast spike every year from June to November.
Yet hurricanes, powerful as they can be, are pretty easy to prepare for: Have an emergency kit stocked with water, canned food, batteries and the other essentials that are listed on countless websites. Know the evacuation route you’ll take, should the order be given. Move your lawn furniture into the garage. Let your loved ones know where you’re heading.
Now you can relax
That’s it. Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, read a book, go for a walk… Anything but worry. Because from that point on, any anxiety that you expend is a complete waste and only makes you feel terrible, raises your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, makes you sweat, tremble, feel weak and tired, gives you headaches, heart palpitations, muscle aches and can result in a loss of libido.
There’s a delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to anxiety with action:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In the case of a hurricane, I can’t do anything to stop it coming but I can update the status of my emergency kit and move the furniture off my deck. Then I can stop worrying and get on with my life.
Two intelligent choices
One of the characteristics of worry is that we evaluate options, alternatives and choices over and over, endlessly weighing this against that. Then we go back and do it all again. The paralysis of anxiety bogs us down in the ceaseless cycle of analyze, plan, compare, doubt, repeat. In the face of any perceived threat, though, you have two intelligent choices: Do something or do nothing.
Doing something – anything – provides you with the benefit of results. If you get the result you want, the problem is solved. If you get a different result, you’ll at least have feedback and you can fine tune your action as you try something else. Doing nothing, on the other hand, provides you with the benefit of leisure, rest and relaxation.
Worry accomplishes nothing
The endless analysis and mentation of the worrier, though, lies somewhere in between. It consumes tremendous energy but produces no results. And it allows no leisure, rest or relaxation. In other words, it’s the worst possible option.
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe once wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” There’s also an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.”
Action produces results
When you begin to take action, all manner of things begin to happen that work in your favor. The people around you recognize that you’re serious and those who want the same things align and want to team with you. You produce results, which show and teach you things that you couldn’t possibly learn from others, reading books, watching YouTube or endlessly analyzing the situation. You start to get feedback about how your actions can be made better, more efficient and faster. When you begin to take action you unleash and harness forces that you didn’t even know existed.
Everyone who has ever lived has faced challenges that had the potential to be worrying. Why do some people seem to be more adept at getting past these challenges than others? In Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the very first habit is, “Be Proactive.” In other words, don’t sit and wait in reactive mode. Do something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the face of the Great Depression, said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
I spend a lot of time in airports and I frequently see people who are borderline apoplectic with anger, anxiety and worry that they’ll miss their connection or be otherwise inconvenienced. They are beside themselves with worry that they’ll miss their flight.
People miss flights all the time. And when they do, the meeting gets postponed, the party is missed or the vacation begins one day later. Again, so what?
You will survive
People actually lose their jobs all the time, too. They also get sick all the time, and they suffer the breakup of relationships, too. If you’re alive and breathing, bad things are, occasionally, going to happen to you. But you are going to survive.
The point is, we spend so much time worrying about horrible things happening to us. And on the odd occasion when they do, it’s never so bad as we believe it’s going to be. Yes, it’s inconvenient, annoying, sometimes even painful. But the feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and frustration that we experience by letting ourselves be rattled by the anticipation of the event are far more disturbing, damaging and dangerous than the unwelcome outcomes that we endure.
Worrying about it is worse than the problem
The list of negative health effects that chronic worry and anxiety can bring on should be enough to scare you out of being scared: Skin conditions, irritability, high blood pressure, ulcers, restlessness, panic attacks, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, trouble concentrating, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, muscle aches and loss of libido.
Or you could just be late for your meeting. The choice is yours.
The same comparison is true regardless of the particular worry that might be your personal favorite. We all believe that our worry is different, the negative outcomes more catastrophic, the consequences more far-reaching. But they’re not.
Worries or lessons?
While the negative outcomes are never as bad as we believe they’re going to be, the lessons that we can learn and the growth we can experience from those outcomes are always infinitely more valuable than you can imagine. But that’s if, and only if we choose to pay attention to the lessons.
Think back to some situations in which the very thing you were worried about came true. While it’s obvious that you survived, how bad was it? Be honest with your assessment here – Did things turn out to be as terrible as you had imagined them being during the runup to the catastrophe? Or were they not quite as awful as you anticipated they were going to be?
Perhaps, more importantly, did you grow from the experience? Did you learn any lessons that have helped you to avoid or mitigate similar situations in the future? What were your takeaways? Did it just leave you even more worried about a repeat performance? Or did experiencing the consequence result in your begin better prepared and better equipped in the future?
Bad things will still happen
There is no doubt that at some point in your future, something is going to happen that you’d prefer didn’t. Are you going to spend the time between now and that day working on your heart palpitations? Or are you going to rationally anticipate that life will throw the occasional curve ball, be ready with the lessons you’ve been learning all your life and, in the meantime, enjoy the sunshine?
“Do you remember the things you were worrying about a year ago? How did they work out? Didn’t you waste a lot of fruitless energy on account of most of them? Didn’t most of them turn out all right after all?
Mentation is a fancy word for mental activity or the act of thinking and we do it all the time. Experts can’t seem to agree how many discrete thoughts we have every day but estimates range from 20,000 to 70,000. Regardless, it’s a lot. For chronic worriers, many, if not most of those thoughts are problem-focused.
Many habitual worriers like to claim that their anxiety helps them solve the problems they believe they’re facing. But problem-solving is a very different activity than worrying. It’s rational, it’s action-oriented and it makes progress. When you’re worrying, your mentation takes on a very different tone. It’s very easy to tell the difference for yourself.
Worry is circular thinking
If your thinking is primarily worry-focused, you’ll find that, throughout the day, you’re regurgitating the same mental contents of yesterday. Yesterday’s thoughts were essentially the same as those of last week, last month and even a year ago. Your thinking goes round-and-round in circles and always ends up back where you began, concerned about money, health, relationships or the low-pressure zone that’s forming in the eastern Atlantic. Most telling, though, is that your thoughts don’t feel good. But no matter how drained, down and crappy the thoughts make you feel, you’re simply unable to stop them from cycling around, over and over again.
Mentation that’s aimed at problem-solving, in contrast, makes you feel good. It feels like you’re moving forward towards a solution. The process might be tough and challenging, but it’s also productive. You weigh options, test ideas and make choices. As with worry, you might feel drained after a problem-solving session, but you additionally feel like you’ve accomplished something useful. That the effort was worthwhile. Instead of circling back to the same place you were yesterday, you can see the progress that you’ve made and it feels satisfying.
Become aware of your thoughts
One of the keys to unsubscribing from anxiety is learning to pay attention to and become more aware of the nature of our thoughts. By learning to distinguish between a good old-fashioned worry-fest and productive, progressive, problem-solving, we can take the first steps to controlling and eventually overcoming the pointless and debilitating habit of worrying.
Ah, genetics! You may have been born with brown eyes and curly hair, but short of wearing dark glasses and a hat, you’re pretty much stuck with them. But you weren’t born worrying. That’s something you picked up along the way and are fully capable of putting back down. There hasn’t been a single piece of evidence that proves or even suggests that anxiety and worry are built into your genes.
You were taught to worry
Remember your carefree days as a child? You didn’t worry about a thing until your parents, teachers, coaches and the world around you convinced you that you should. “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t touch that, you might get sick!” “If you don’t get into a good college you’ll end up a failure!” Every worry, anxious moment or fear that you’ve experienced has been learned, adopted or conditioned from your experiences through the years.
It might be tempting to say that children are naïve and don’t understand the threats that the ‘real world’ imposes. But how often do we wish or seek guidance to be more childlike again? They don’t spend time thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, they live in the moment, take delight and joy in the smallest things and deal with life as it comes along.
Your long history of success
And life’s been ‘coming along’ at you for many years now. Over all those years you’ve become extremely good at dealing with life as it comes along. The proof is that you’re still alive. You have successfully dealt with every threat and obstacle the world has thrown at you. There isn’t a single thing that has defeated you.
You might object and say that you’ve taken your share of bumps and bruises, nasty collisions even. And still, here you are today – alive, breathing, thinking and wanting to become an even greater version of yourself. That’s proof enough of your ability to survive, prosper, grow and be victorious.
Take a moment to pat yourself on the back! When you think about all the threats, risks, hazards, perils and pressures that you’ve laid awake nights worrying about, not one has taken you down. In spite of all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in anxiety over all the terrible tragedies that you were concerned might befall you, you’ve always emerged the victor. Sure, you may have been down on the mat occasionally. You may even have been close to throwing in the towel. But you didn’t. You’re still here, still reaching for the next prize.
That’s worth taking a moment – or an entire week! – to celebrate!
One of the characteristics of worry and anxiety is how easily and frequently we spin off, spiraling down through layers and layers of ever-increasing terrors. Here’s how it works:
We hear a news item about the Dow Jones falling 500 points today. Some pundit then goes on to tell us how the economy is overdue for a major correction and this is likely just the beginning. They dig up and recycle stories from 1929, 1987, 2008 and every other time the stock exchange has taken a dive. “Experts” are interviewed about what this means to the average investor and how this is likely to hit the ‘regular Joe’s’ 401(k) accounts, mutual funds and retirement savings.
This doom and gloom has you in a panic about your own investments and you begin to imagine your savings being flushed down one gigantic toilet bowl. Your throat tightens and your pulse rate goes up as you think about having to work three jobs for the next ten years to recover these losses. No, wait, you’re too old! It will be impossible to recover them! Now you’re imagining retirement in a rusty old single-wide trailer, parked outside some nowhere town as you wander the streets looking for bottles and cans to turn in for a few bucks at the recycling center while hoping to scrounge enough for the cans of cat food that will have to serve as your dinner.
24-hours later, you hear another news item that the Dow recovered yesterday’s losses and went on to a record close.
So much for the self-administered nightmare.
Thoughts aren’t always reliable
As rational and intelligent human beings we put a great deal of stock and faith in our ability to think. We register informational input, we process it, we reach conclusions and we make decisions.
But what if our thoughts weren’t always trustworthy? What if they aren’t always as reliable as we like to believe they are? The fact is, there are limits to rationale and reason. And even when those limits are very high, there are also, occasionally, very real obstacles that prevent them from functioning properly and reliably.
Many things affect our ability to think accurately and reliably. Have you ever had a few glasses of wine and found yourself saying or doing things that, in the clear light of the next morning, might not have been so wise? Have you ever been overcome with emotion, perhaps anger, jealousy, or even joy, and found yourself entertaining thoughts or making judgments – either negative or positive – that later seemed a little unreasonable?
Anxiety impairs thinking
Aside from true cognitive impairment brought on by disease or aging, there are many things in daily life that can and do impair our ability to think clearly. Fear, anxiety and worry are high on the list. Your ability to concentrate is one of the many functions that is hampered when you’re worried. And studies have also shown that anxiety can affect perception, attention, learning and executive functions, which are the processes that have to do with mental control and self-regulation.
Conclusions we reach and decisions we make in the midst of anxiety or worry are at high risk of being unreliable. And yet, caught up in the whirlwind of worry, they seem logical, inevitable and terrifying. So the next time you’re deep into your own worry-fest or it feels like you’re overcome with anxiety, step outside yourself for a moment and remember that the conclusions and decisions you’re making in those moments should probably not be trusted.
“I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
Everybody has a list of things they’d love to do, “If only I weren’t afraid of…” That’s the worst thing about anxiety and worry – they hold us back from living the lives we dream about. They put the brakes on our potential and limit what we can become. One college professor asked his students to list the things they’d do, if only they weren’t afraid. Here’s the list they compiled. See anything that resonates with you?
If I weren't afraid, I would:
Now, what’s on that list of yours?
Whenever you head out on a journey it’s smart to take along a few supplies. Whether it’s some water on an afternoon hike or a map and some snacks on a road trip, a few basic provisions are indispensable along the way.
Many of us would like to be less fearful, less anxious, less worried and self-doubting but let’s face it, we’re not there yet. We’ll have to take a journey to get from our current place of anxiety to that land of fearlessness. What are the supplies we’ll need to get us all the way there?
Build your self-esteem
Fearlessness is built on confidence, which is built on self-esteem. And self-esteem is built when one small accomplishment is stacked on another and then another. Every time we achieve a goal, win a victory or pull off an achievement, our self-esteem grows. We feel better about ourselves and we’re more willing to take on the next challenge.
Things get sticky, though, when obstacles come along and our anxieties and self-doubts fill the windshield again. When that happens, the self-esteem disappears and it seems like we’re back to square one. That’s why it’s important to bring a knapsack full of victories, accomplishments and achievements along for this journey.
Document your successes
Start by making a list – it MUST be written – of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. I remember, at about age 12 or 13, building a go-cart from bits and pieces of scrap metal and an old lawnmower motor that my Dad had in the garage. My today-self can see it as a rusty pile of junk, held together by bits of wire, but I’ll never forget the incredible feeling when it actually ran and I was bumping noisily around the front yard.
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow all over again.
Next, make a list of five things you accomplished in college or at your very first job. Again, they don’t have to be huge in your eyes today. What matters is that they were victories to you at the time. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their moment, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to do it anyway. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back again today for that win you scored back then.
Expanding your comfort zone
While you can repeat this exercise for as many time periods in your life as you’d like, make sure you finish up with a list of five successes you had last week. It might take some thinking because we’ve gotten into the habit of focusing on the things that haven’t or might not work out. But they’re there. Maybe it was a great meal that you cooked, a really insightful report you wrote or the way you brought a smile to someone else. Each one is a victory, an accomplishment, a win. And each time we bring these wins back into our minds, our self-esteem grows. The more our self-esteem grows, the more confident we become, the more willing to try something new and different and challenging. And every time we try and succeed at something that’s new and challenging, the closer we get to fearlessness.
When you’re facing a challenge that seems daunting, it’s too easy to forget the things you’ve already accomplished, the challenges you’ve already overcome and the bad-ass warrior that you actually are. So when you head out on the road towards fearlessness, be sure to bring along a big supply of previous victories.
The world, society, our friends and relations all love it when we worry.
Why? Because they worry too, worrying is miserable and misery loves company! But there’s no requirement that you play their game.
Once you’ve decided to opt out of worry, you’ll want to keep an eye out for these four ways that the world loves to try to keep you worried.
Walk through an airport, run on a treadmill at the gym or sit down for a drink at the bar and there it is – non-stop news. News stations make their money from the number of eyeballs and eardrums that are tuned in and the more sensational, the more terrifying they can make the report, the more fearful we become and the more we tune in. But you don’t have to! Try going without the news for an entire week and see how much lighter, freer, easier you feel!
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the whole social media tidal wave has got us plugged in 24-hours a day. We become addicted to the emotional roller-coaster and our blood pressure goes up and down right along. If you must be connected (and there’s no rule that says you must) set a specific (and short!) time each day to check your phone. Then put it down and go back to that great book, your gardening or sit for your daily 10-minute meditation.
The ‘Worry Club’
You know them. They’re the ones who phone you up regularly, and it’s always bad news. “Did you hear about the earthquake?!!” “Looks like it’s going to rain again today.” “I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.” Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you. Drop out of the worry club. Avoid the people who drag you down and seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. And in those times when you can’t avoid the ‘worry-monger,’ keep the chat short and follow it immediately with a little treat for yourself.
What’s the opposite of a ‘feel-good’ movie? It’s one that makes you feel miserable, scared, depressed, anxious or otherwise yucky. Same goes for music lyrics. If you’re choosing to unsubscribe from anxiety, you might want to make some adjustments to your entertainment diet. While those ‘feel-good’ movies might have a reputation for being light-weight and occasionally a bit cheesy, the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin pulsing through your veins will more than make up for it.
If you have an allergy, the strategy is simple: Avoid those things you’re allergic to. If you don’t want to feel worried or anxious it’s easy to begin avoiding those things that bring on those feelings. What worry trigger are you going to start avoiding today?
Can you believe that we’re almost at the halfway point of 2019!?
In any sports event, the coach and the team always use halftime to reassess their game plan. They review their performance, assess the situation and set new intentions as they head into the second half.
And what about you? What’s your score at halftime? Have you grown? Are you thriving? Are you on your way to accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve never been before? Accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve dreamed about?
Exactly what are your intentions for the second half of 2019?
Intentions versus plans
Notice I didn’t say ‘plans.’ I said, ‘intentions.’ There’s a difference.
A plan is a set of goals that you felt obliged to create. It’s a wish list that, if the gods are smiling and the planets align, you might accomplish a portion of.
But intention is different. It’s a force of nature that embodies a focused, singular vision that generates its own energy. It’s an irresistible movement forward toward a future that fills your field of view and creates butterflies in your gut. It’s a full-color, surround-sound, 3D-extravaganza that you can feel and taste and touch. It’s an idea so clear, so intense, it marshals its own optimism, momentum and luck.
It begins as you accept the reality of today for what it is. But it doesn’t accept today as a blueprint for tomorrow. Instead, it sets today as the springboard for tomorrow and beyond. You’ve heard it before: anything the mind can conceive, it can achieve. What are you conceiving for yourself in the second half of this year?
The universe rewards action
But intention alone isn’t enough. Intention begets impatient, inspired action. Every hour. Every day. Every week. Every month is dominated by an insatiably itching to-do list that pushes you forward. You take care of the day-to-day, but you never take your eye off the bigger, farther-away target. I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a student, a stay-at-home parent or a retiree. If you haven’t set your unstoppable intention yet, what are you waiting for?
Look forward, beyond the windshield: What are you going to do this moment, this day, this week, this month to move forward toward your vision of the future?
Look back in the rear-view mirror: What progress have you made? What ground have you covered today? If you’re still surrounded by the same scenery, it’s time to get serious about your future.
Are you the dinghy floating in the ocean, tossed this way and that by fickle circumstances, convenient excuses and vague aspirations? Or are you the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with a laser-lock on your destination and a relentless urgency to plow through any headwind and rogue wave that tries to knock you off course?
What’s your second half going to be like?
The problems of the world are too large, too complex for me to even comprehend, let alone contribute to a solution.
What am I supposed to do about global warming? Drive a Prius and the ice sheets will stop melting? Recycle my plastic bottles and the fires in California will go away? Hardly.
What am I supposed to do about the whack-jobs running Syria, North Korea and ISIS? Send $25 to UNICEF? Walk in a protest rally? I don’t think so.
What can I do to help the millions of refugees who have lost their homes and families and are literally adrift in a strange and scary world that doesn’t want them? Write a letter to my Member of Congress? Send another $25 to UNICEF? Ain’t gonna change a thing.
So here I sit, helpless to do anything.
Random acts of kindness
But then I recall the time I was working with a client a thousand miles from home and had a bad toothache. The client called his dentist, who took me right away and made the pain go away.
And the time I thought I’d lost my phone in the Atlanta airport and the kindly Delta agent walked the entire length of the terminal to return it to me.
And the time my brother sat and listened, he didn’t judge, he just listened as I poured my problems into his ear.
Tiny little acts of kindness. One-to-one, that brightened my day, lifted my spirit, renewed my faith in humanity. There have been countless moments in my life when friends, family, even total strangers have made the decision to give a little of themselves and help me.
There is no shortage of opportunities to be kind
So I realize that I’m far from helpless. Every single day I’m handed dozens of opportunities to pass on that tiny act of kindness. I can look the checkout clerk at the grocery store in the eye and offer a genuine smile. I can treat the man at the call center for the cable company like the human being he is. I can shock the heck out of someone by holding the door for them.
There’s an old story about a woman walking along a beach and coming across an entire school of fish that had been washed up and stranded well above the water line. She bent down and picked one up, carried it back to the ocean and let it go. A bystander scoffed that there were hundreds of other fish and she couldn’t possibly help them all. “No,” she replied, “but I could help that one.”