A Basic Method for Controlling Worry

Excerpted from



First, it helps to understand what I call the basic equation of worry. This is a good way to conceptualize where toxic worry comes from:

Heightened Vulnerability + Lack of Control = Toxic Worry

The more vulnerable you feel (regardless of how vulnerable you actually are) and the less control you feel you have (regardless of how much control you actually have), the more toxic your worrying will become. Therefore, any steps you can take to reduce your feelings of vulnerability and/or increase your feelings of control will serve to reduce your feelings of toxic worry.

Terrorists prey upon us by creating feelings of vulnerability in us even when statistics tell us we are safer than we feel. Once one person died of inhalation anthrax, we all felt afraid of anthrax, even though statistics told us dying in a car accident was far, far more likely than contracting this disease.

We can combat the worry the terrorists instilled or any other kind of toxic worry by reducing our feelings of vulnerability and increasing our feelings of control, or to use FDR's terms, by trying to control our fear of fear. The Great Depression spun out of control when people panicked and precipitated a run on the banks. Effective handling of this current crisis depends upon our not panicking.

But how? How do we stay out of the paralyzing grip of toxic worry? If you're walking through a minefield, how do you not feel so afraid that you can't take another step? You need a plan.

A great deal of recent research has shown that it is the fear of fear that is the dangerous intensifier. FDR was right. The fear of fear is what turns ordinary fear into a panic attack, for example. The fear of fear is what paralyzes us. The fear of fear is what escalates a genuine but probably manageable danger into what feels like an impossibly overpowering and unmanageable disaster. Suddenly fear escalates from a sharp breeze into a tornado that rips you apart.

When you have a plan, you can turn to the plan for guidance, which immediately makes you feel as if you are less vulnerable and more in control whether you are or not.

So we need a plan, a rational method to keep danger in perspective, a method that will help us feel less vulnerable and help us feel more in control. Whether the danger we perceive stems from terrorists, the poor economy, a concern about our children, or a mole on our forearm we think might be melanoma, we need a method for keeping our fear from running wild so that we can systematically dismantle the problem and take control.

Let me outline an effective, five-step method, after which I will comment on the entire process.

1. Never worry alone. Talk to someone you trust-a friend, your spouse, a colleague, a relative. Call them on the phone or go in person. When you are alone, toxic worry intensifies. By far, the most potent antiworry device we have is contact with each other.

2. Get the facts. The toxic part of worry is usually based upon lack of information or wrong information. In the absence of facts, your imagination rushes in and amplifies the danger into a catastrophe, always envisioning the worst. Facts short-circuit this process. In the short run, the facts can intensify your worrying, but in the long run you will be much better off with the facts than without them. If you are afraid to get the facts, you should go back to step 1 and not worry alone. Talk to someone. Doing this will probably make you feel strong enough to get the facts.

3. Make a plan. Based upon step 2, make a plan. Once you have marshaled support (step 1) and obtained the facts (step 2) you are ready to make a plan. Toxic worry loves a passive victim, but it shrinks in the face of someone with a plan. If you have a plan, even if your plan doesn't work, you feel less vulnerable and more in control, which instantly reduces your feeling of toxic worry. As toxic worry declines, your judgment improves and your capacity to take constructive action returns.

4. Take care of yourself. When people worry at a toxic level, they tend to forget the basics of self-care, which only makes their worrying worse. Here are five basic steps of self-care you should practice all the time, but especially during times of danger and worry:

1. Get enough sleep.

2. Eat a balanced diet and do not abuse alcohol or other substances as a means of controlling your worrying.

3. Get plenty of vigorous exercise. Exercise is an antianxiety agent and an antidepressant.

4. Pray or meditate. Both prayer and meditation calm the troubled mind and soul.

5. Get regular doses of positive human contact, and avoid doses of negative human contact. In other words, try, as much as you can, to be around people who are good to you and not be around people who are not.

5. Let it go. You can go to this step, step 5, only after you have addressed steps 1 through 4. But once you have addressed those, then you are ready to let the toxic worry go. If you are like most of us, the chances are that you will not be able to do this entirely, but that is the direction in which you should try to head. Many people do precisely the opposite; they try to hold on to their toxic worry as if it were unsafe to let it go. In fact, as you let go of your worry, you free up mental energy that will help you solve whatever problems you are dealing with.

This is the basic five-step method. It works with people of all ages, and it is effective against most kinds of toxic worry. Some people, those who have what are called anxiety disorders, will require more assistance, and this book lays out in detail the kind of help they need. Again, the news here is good; people who suffer from anxiety disorders can get help that is far more effective than ever before.

But the basic five-step plan is an excellent starting point for everyone.

The most important step in the process is step 1, never worry alone. Connect. Reach out. Commiserate. Brainstorm. Hug. Eat together. Talk. Play a game of cards. Hang out together. Do whatever you want; just don't let yourself get cut off from others. Toxic worry does its greatest damage to people who feel isolated.

Tags: Personal Growth

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