Overcoming Worry in an Uncertain World

by Victor M. Parachin

It’s 3:00 AM in Austin, Texas, and while her neighbors are sleeping peacefully, Angela—the owner of a small business—is jolted awake by what she refers to as her sleep committee. “The committee meets in my head, and we run down a list of problems: the weak economy, the need for more cash flow, emails I didn’t get to, people I need to call tomorrow, along with all the things I didn’t get done earlier,” she explains. After a restless night, her worries follow her into the daytime hours, giving her a headache, an upset stomach, and making her easily irritated.

When it comes to worry, Angela is hardly alone. A study of people in Britain revealed the average Briton is spending, in a lifetime, five years and two months worrying. That amounts to one hour and 46 minutes daily, or 27 days yearly. It is the equivalent of taking five years off just to sit and worry. In the United States, anxiety disorders are the most common forms of mental illness, affecting 19.1 million people or 13 percent of all adults. At least one in four—about 65 million Americans—will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Women are twice as likely as men to be impacted by worry.

Working your way through.
Yet worry is not the enemy. It is the inability to manage worry which diminishes en­joyment of life, erodes peace of mind and, if left unchecked, can damage health. “Heavy thoughts bring on physical maladies; when the soul is oppressed, so is the body,” noted Martin Luther. However, worry is a highly treatable condition. Here are some suggestions which anyone can implement in order to stop worrying and start living.

Worry wisely.
Sort your anxieties into those you can influence and those you can’t. Then, focus only on what you can change, modify, and alter.

Consider Stephanie Lindstrom, who was born with a defective heart valve. When she was six weeks old, she underwent surgery to place a band around the valve to help her heart function normally. Because the band did not grow as she did, Stephanie was in and out of the hospital for years. At 17, she had open-heart surgery again to fit her heart with an artificial valve. As she began to heal, she decided to do whatever she could to strengthen her body so that her heart would not have to work as hard.

What began as mild walking, ventured into jogging. She continued this regimen for a year and eventually could run 20 minutes at a time. Encouraged by her progress, Stephanie began training for a 26-mile marathon, which she completed successfully. Since then, she has run several more.

Rather than wring your hands, remember to clasp your hands.
The Bible reminds us: “Leave all your worries with God, because God cares for you”(1 Peter 5:7), Today’s English Version. Similarly, God speaking through the prophet declares: “Do not be afraid—I am with you! I am your God—let nothing terrify you! I will make you strong and help you; I will protect you and save you” (Isaiah 41:10). And Psalm 56:3 helps us to pray: “When I am afraid, O Lord, Almighty, I put my trust in you.”

Shake it off and step up.
A parable is told of a farmer who had an old mule that fell into a dry well and began braying loudly. The farmer came over and assessed the situation: the well was deep and the mule was heavy. Because the mule was old and the well was dry, he made the cruel decision to bury the animal in the well. That way the mule would be put out of its misery and the dry well would be filled. As he began to shovel dirt into the well, the mule became hysterical. But as each shovel-full of dirt hit the mule’s back, a saving thought came to him. He realized that every time a load of dirt landed on his back, he could shake it off and step up! This he did, shovel-full after shovel-full. It wasn’t long before the old mule, dirty and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of that deep well.

That parable offers important insights into worry management: Face the problem directly, courageously, and honestly. Refuse to give in to panic, anxiety, and self-pity. Remind yourself that problems which come along and feel like they are going to bury you can be shaken off and used to step up.

Retrain your brain.
“Most of the worriers I treat need to retrain their minds and learn new mental skills,” explains Edward H. Hallowell, M.D., author of numerous books about worry. “You can train your brain to learn effective ways of dealing with situations that arise again and again, such as financial worries or fears of failure,” he says. “There is a window of opportunity that lasts about a minute, during which you can sever the tentacle of a toxic worry before it grips you totally. That is the time to defuse worry,” Dr. Hallowell adds.

Defusing worry means speaking to yourself in useful ways. “Most worriers talk to themselves in half-phrases of imagined doom, little punches and jabs of negativity,” Hallowell continues. “Try to erase those old, automatic patterns by deliberately distracting yourself. Whistle or sing. Snap your fingers. Insert a positive thought. One positive thought at a time can gradually shift the balance of your thinking from negative to positive.”

Talk back to your worries.
A young woman explained to a therapist that she worried about her job, boyfriend, friends, family, and her car. “Clearly, I’m plagued by worry,” she told the therapist. After hearing her out, the therapist gave her a powerful phrase to use. She said, “Whenever you start worrying, tell yourself: ‘This is not a story I have to tell myself.’ You just don’t have to continue producing tragic narratives. Tell yourself to cut it out.” Amazingly, it worked, the woman says.

Never worry alone.
You have friends. Talk to them! Major problems and issues can be intimidating and frightening. That’s when it’s time to bring in supportive people so you can talk out your worries.

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Pat became extremely anxious and frightened. At the urging of a neighbor, she joined a support group and met two wonderful friends. “Together, we made this horrible disease bearable,” she says.

Get physical.
“As simple as it sounds, exercise is the best natural anti-anxiety agent we have,” declares Dr. Hallowell. He says exercise reduces tension, drains excess aggression and frustration, enhances well-being, improves sleep, curbs the tendency to overeat, aids in concentration, and reduces distract-ability. “It is healing to the body, and therefore to the mind. Getting exercise at least every other day should be part of your plan to reduce anxiety and control worry.” Dr. Hallowell continues, “If you are having a bad day at the office, try walking up and down a flight of stairs five times. Your mind will be less troubled when you come back to your desk. The change in physiology induced by exercise calms the mind.”

Act, rather than react.
Worry is almost always an automatic reaction to an issue. Rather than react, pause to look carefully at the problem. Then ask yourself, “What step or steps can I take to remedy the matter?”

For example, one evening I drove along the Oklahoma Turnpike for a meeting. While driving, I inadvertently missed a toll payment of 75 cents. By the time I arrived at the meeting, I was anxious about being fined several hundred dollars for missing the toll. Instead of having a sleepless, fret-filled night, I called the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to ask if I could submit payment for the toll I missed. To my surprise and relief, the employee told me all I had to do was send a check for 75 cents and include my name, license plate number, date, approximate driving time, and location of the toll missed. Problem solved; worry eliminated.

Take heart.
After you have done everything you can possibly do, let your worry go. Make the decision and commitment to move on. It can help to visualize yourself placing your worries on a small boat and then letting it drift far away on the ocean until you can’t see it anymore. Let it be gone for good!