It is surely a marker of modern society that we have reached such a high degree of daily stress that we now worry about the amount of worrying that we do.If you worry that you worry too much, you are certainly not alone. Many people feel anxiety and than feel anxious about feeling anxious, wondering if they’re OK, if they’re healthy, if they’re normal. The answer to each of those questions is probably “Yes,” so, let’s try to put some of those worries to rest.In an earlier column, I talked about the source of stress. When you are trying to avoid some kind of negative outcome, you will feel stressed. At work, stress might come from a deadline, a boss who you fear will criticize you, or the difficulties you are having with a colleague. At home, you might worry about your kids, money or a diet.Everyone worries at least some of the time. Whenever you are in a mode of trying to avoid something bad, stress and fear are a natural reaction.So, then the question becomes: How much is too much?That is where we take a page from the “serenity prayer” that is credited to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In its most popular form, it reads:
The beauty of this simple adage is that it gives you a good formula for thinking about whether you are having too much anxiety.What to Do When Anxiety StrikesWhen you are feeling anxious, find a quiet spot. Make a list of the potentially negative things you are trying to avoid.Next, ask yourself whether there is anything you can do about the items on your list.Let’s start with the items on your list for which that answer is “No.” (That is, the things you cannot change.) When you stress about things you cannot do anything about, then you are indeed worrying too much. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome, and so you need to find strategies to help keep you from dwelling too long, wallowing, or working yourself into an emotional tizzy.You cannot simply tell yourself not to think about these things, of course. That does not work any more than you could tell yourself not to think about white elephants.
Instead, take about 20 minutes and write about the thing that worries you. There is a lot of research suggesting that when you write about the things that bother you, it helps to connect those thoughts to the rest of your knowledge in ways that makes it easier to stop thinking about them. Take your pen (or laptop) and think about what you are trying to avoid and why you think it is bad. Write it all down—what the problem is, why you think it’s a problem, how it makes you feel, where those feelings are really coming from.It may not be fun to do the writing, but it helps in the long run, by allowing you to see your worries for what they are, not for what you’ve let them balloon into in your mind. The exercise often reveals that they are not as bad as you thought. Perhaps you’ll realize that it’s a smaller concern than it seemed at first and bound to blow over. Or maybe you’ll see that what caused you the anxiety in the first place is external to you (e.g. someone else’s opinion of you) and therefore not intrinsic to who you are or what you do.For those things that you can do something about, there are two things to do to formulate a plan to address the issue.First, think about whether these anxiety-provoking situations really have to be thought about negatively. For example, many people worry that they will not perform a task at work well enough, so they worry what other people will think about it. In those situations, there is nothing that has to be negative about the situation. You have chosen to focus on the potential negatives.In those cases, focus yourself on the positives. Instead of imagining possible downsides, think about the benefits of what you are doing at work or what’s waiting for you at home. In this way, you flip yourself from feeling stress to feeling more joy and anticipation. That is a much more pleasant way to live your life than constantly trying to avoid catastrophe.Once you have gone through this entire exercise, you are left with the things you really should be worried about—and they are all things you can do something about. So, use the energy that comes along with your anxiety to make a plan for how to deal with the problem or problems at hand. Then, with your plans in place, go out and exercise. Take all the pent up energy anxiety wrought and put it to good use. Let it out with a run, a game of Frisbee or a class at the gym. You’ll feel instantly better. And when you get back home, you’ll have nothing but a productive list of stress-abating to-dos waiting for you.And then you can rest secure in the knowledge that you are worrying exactly the right amount.QUIZ: Is Your Stress Out of Control?