I’m a worrier, from a long line of Women Worriers. Around my neck, I wear the mascot of my ancestry: a clawshaped charm said to ward off the evil eye. A gift from Mom, of course. She worries most about freak disasters, like a hurricane blowing away her house. “If we’re still here next year” is a favorite conversational opener. My ruminations are usually more grounded: We’re not saving enough for college. Why do the kids prefer Happy Meals to mine? But when I really get going, I can embroider fantastic tapestries of worry. Like last summer, when I convinced myself that stray cats were poisoning the herb garden, and we had to stop eating homemade pesto or we’d get rabies.
That said, you can see why, when I recently wandered into a local bookstore, I found myself leafing through the books on worry control. None of the advice spoke to me, although some of it made me hoot. Draw a picture, cut it into pieces, then put it back together while mulling over whether I’m a good problem solver or not? A preschooler could do this. I don’t have preschool problems. “Give it up!” the skeptic in me shouted.
Then I came across the Homes and Rahe stress chart–a psychological tool designed to measure the strain in an individual’s life. Every possible sort of upset is assigned a numerical value (carrying a mortgage: 17; friction with in-laws: 29; getting fired: 47). If you have 200 points’ worth of problems to worry about, you’re a candidate for a psychiatric disorder.
I scored 235. Was it time to stock up on frozen casseroles in preparation for my breakdown? The thought stiffened my spine, and I began to read more carefully through the material I’d gathered. I finally decided to give a few of the more reasonable techniques a go, and to keep a record of the results:
DAY 1: Talk it out
When worried, call a friend. This is a strategy often advised by experts. A caring outsider, they say, can often allay anxiety by providing perspective. In other words, a friend will cluck sympathetically for awhile, then suggest you get real.
This morning, over a cup of coffee with my neighbor, Jeanne, I lay out my latest work worry: An employer has offered me a pittance for an assignment, and I’ve countered with a higher figure. Now he won’t return my calls, and I’m worried. Is the gig lost?
“Bad sign,” Jeanne announces, pouring more French Roast. “He’s probably going to avoid you until the end of time.” My worst fear has been confirmed. This isn’t very cheering, but I do get some closure–at least it’s one concern I can discard from my overstuffed sack.
The cheapskate never did call, and I lost an assignment. But I’m glad I stood my ground.
DAY 3: Share concerns with your spouse
Be open and honest about your worries the books say. That way, your spouse will know your true feelings. I finish reading a chapter on just this subject when my husband, David, phones to say he’s leaving the office soon. Three hours later, he’s failed to appear. I would love to share my concerns with him, but since I have no idea where he is, that doesn’t seem too feasible. Should I call a friend and tell her I’m going crazy with worry? Wait–what could she do, activate a manhunt? Staring at the receiver, I finally realize it’s 911 or no one.
It turns out David went for a drink with a coworker and forgot the time. When he comes home three and a half hours later, I let him have it, and feel much better.
DAY 5: Get to the heart of your worries
It’s one of those drizzly Mondays, and I’m anxious. I could plan dinner. I could make some work calls. Or I could just stare out the window and wonder where squirrels go when it rains. It’s a fine day for self-examination.
Like any worrier, I often find myself in the grip of a disaster scenario that expands from one unfortunate event. It’s less than a year since the newspaper that employed me collapsed, and although I’ve discovered that I enjoy working from home, I continue to wallow in Dickensian poorhouse fantasies. Like the one that finds me old, penniless, and living in a bare, drafty room above my son’s garage.
Experts detest this kind of self-indulgent worrying: too general, no substance. I must pinpoint the specific irritant that keeps the scenario on permanent replay, then exorcise it.
Is it really the financial fallout of my job loss that’s haunting me? After all, I keep getting freelance assignments and my husband has a good job. Then it hits me: I’m feeling selfish. What right do I have to hold out for doing work I love instead of going after a regular paycheck?
Funny, I don’t feel all that exorcised. My thinking may have grown clearer, but if I’ve nudged aside some of the worry, it’s only made room for guilt.
DAY 7: Think the best
My mother, brother, two sisters, and some friends are coming to my house for a big dinner next week. Family get-togethers have been hard since my father died a year ago, and although we see one another regularly, we haven’t done a big event without Dad yet. I’m worried we are going to sink into a group depression.
I’ve read about this trick called visual mastery that you can play on your worrying mind. Use your imagination to get rusty optimism working again by conjuring up a troublesome scenario, then reimagining it in a positive light. Unlike other techniques, it sounds commonsensical.
As I’m figuring out the menu and beginning to tense up, I visualize a comforting tableau of family camaraderie. I place my mother and kids in the living room playing Monopoly, my older sister in the kitchen with me, drying pans as I wash. Imagining this does have a calming effect that enables me to finalize plans without stressing.
DAY 9: Mayday!
A perverse thing is happening to me after rounding the corner on Week 1 of the worry battle. I used to just worry. Now I’m downright troubled. I’ve been waking up each morning feeling sluggish, as if I’m swimming along the bottom of a murky pond. David is beginning to worry about me.
As I rifle through my books yet again, I come across a psychologist’s comments on the vicious cycle of worrying. He points out that a parent who watches her kids at the bus stop from a distance–even though there’s a chaperone present–may reduce her anxieties for the short term. But by nursing her worries so diligently, she actually reinforces them.
This is me, I realize, feeling trapped in my head and desperately in need of fresh air. By heeding every prick of anxiety, I’ve become more conscious of worrying than ever. I have to face it: I live, I breathe, I worry. All that will save me from obsessing is my own rationale. It’s time to put down the books and listen to my inner voice, the one that says “No!” to boiling the basil from my garden.
I still plan to keep trying visual mastery, the technique that worked best for me. But the bottom line is that there is no remedy like distraction. Enough worry about worry. I’m off to watch Seinfeld.