How to Control Worrying
Easy to say, hard to do when you feel like the roof is falling in financially
The New York Times just ran a story titled “Therapists Get an Earful about Career Anxiety.” We’re all running scared.
What to do? We talked to noted psychologist Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., author of The Worry Cure and Anxiety Free: Unravel Your Fears Before They Unravel You to learn his best techniques for controlling anxiety, staying calm and sane.
Q. Is worry escalating?
A. Every day I see patients who are talking about their financial worries, ruminating over how much money they’ve lost in the market, worried about losing their jobs.
Q. Do women worry more than men? It seems that way.
A. Women are twice as likely to be chronic worriers. It’s a combination of factors, but there may be a stronger genetic component for women. Chronic worry eventually leads to chronic depression.
Q What should we do to curb our worries and anxieties?
A. First thing I do is validate these feelings: You have a right to feel anxious or angry. The second thing is normalizing: You are not alone; tens of millions of people have the same feelings you do.
Worry is a common process, no matter what its content is. Let’s say you notice your stock portfolio dropped by a third. You can blame your adviser for putting you into bad investments. You can criticize yourself. That doesn’t do any good. What helps is to look at the historical context. There are bubbles, they burst, and then there is recovery. Recognize that you’re looking at a cyclical process.
Q. Can you teach yourself to worry less?
A. Absolutely. I outline seven techniques to stop worrying in my book, The Worry Cure. One is to set aside worry time. Say you’re worried about losing your job. Sit down for 15 minutes a day and write out your worries. You’ll find you’ll be able to defer worry to your worry time.
Q. I’ve heard you say that you can worry your worry to death. Is that true?
A I tell patients to practice a thought a thousand times. When you welcome the thought or worry, your anxiety goes up a little, but then it subsides until the worry actually bores you. It’s counterintuitive, but it works.
Q. Does positive psychology play a role?
A. You should practice appreciation and gratitude – for your family and your health, for nature. Write out a gratitude statement every day. Research shows that people who practice gratitude each day are less likely to be anxious and depressed. Writing it down is more powerful than thinking it.
Q. Can meditation help?
A. Worriers are activists, always trying to control something. Practice letting go. It’s a great skill. Observe your breath without trying to control it.
I also encourage people to practice constructive optimism. Is there good news in a financial downturn? If you’re young, you may have to face an unemployment crunch for a year or so, but you’ll be able to buy a house for less money. You won’t get screwed on a teaser mortgage you can’t afford. Your investments will be protected by better regulation. Look eight years out.
Q. Any final thoughts?
A. If you feel connected to other people in a meaningful way, through a church or synagogue or other organization, you’re protected against anxiety. If you have a good relationship, you’re protected against anxiety. If you have good values, you are protected against anxiety. Pursue what you believe is the right thing to do. Show courage, kindness, decency.
My mother was on welfare when we were kids, but she was a good person, kind and loving to her family and to strangers, involved in the PTA. If you have no money, you can give love and support to other people. Recognize there are what Aristotle called virtues – being kind and generous.