how to stop worrying man smoothing forehead wrinkles

Worry and anxiety have been big themes in the last couple of weeks around here:

You may recall that I moved last year about this time into a new place. It’s the first time I’ve really felt “at home” in 20 years, and it has allowed me room to breathe for just $800/month.  The landlords invited me to “stay forever” and offered to keep this incredible rate as long as I chose to live here. Well, I just learned that they are now selling the house and that I need to move out, after only one short year.

As the book has just gone to print and speaking in conjunction with the book has only begun to open up, other sources of income have simultaneously and inexplicably dried up. I’m at a crossroads where I am faced with the choice to either find a way to allow these new options, as well as the ongoing mentoring, time to emerge and flourish – or to take on regular hours of “just-pay-the-bills” type work again, which would limit both my mentoring and speaking opportunities severely.  This is in conjunction with now needing to move and all the financial changes that will involve.

Just yesterday, I wound up in the ER for seven hours with extreme internal pain … and lots of time to wonder what it could be. That is, in fact, why today’s post is late in getting published. (No worries; it was not life-threatening. I’m home now recuperating and will live to see another day.)

Everyone faces moments or periods of anxiety, worry, fear or outright dread. No matter how serene we may be, sudden change, bad news or added challenges affect us.  However, the degree to which worry controls our mind or capsizes us remains within the realm of choice.

how to stop worrying quote: the degree to which worry controls our mind or capsizes us remains within the realm of choice.

This past week, a teen girl expressed to me that she was continually on the verge of tears due to worry about complications that may occur next school year. Here’s how our conversation went:

Me: The way your mouth looks right now is making me think something’s wrong today, so what’s up?

Girl: I’m just really worried about school. I’ve been in tears for days about it.

Me: But it’s summer vacation, right? You’re not even in school right now. Tell me more.

Girl: Well, the town is meeting with my school over that girl who was bullying me last year. They want to take me off of the protection plan that proves I wasn’t the problem, and now I don’t know what’s going to happen. And, another friend of mine sent me a picture of my ex-boyfriend talking to the bully girl, so now I think they are going out and will gang up on me.

Me: I can see why those might be scary things. But let me ask you an unrelated question. Is it possible that you could fall down my steps on your way out and break your leg?

Girl: [confused smile] What? Um … yeah, I guess. Why?

Me: Forget about why for right now. Is it possible that your hair will catch fire on the stove and burn off, leaving you completely bald?

Girl: [Laughing] Um …

Me: Is it possible?

Girl: I suppose so.

Me: And is it possible that a plane could be flying overhead right now and an engine might blow and fall off and come crashing through my roof where we sit?

Girl: Yeah, I guess it’s possible. But what does this have to do with school?  Are you just trying to take my mind off it?

Me: Nope. It has everything to do with school. The fact is that you aren’t in school right now. There is no bully in my living room. No ex-boyfriend.  It’s possible that at some point in the future, those things might be a problem – just like it’s possible you could break your leg, go bald or be crushed by falling plane fuselage.  But none of them is happening right now, are they?

Girl: Yeah, but, what if she does start bullying me again? I just don’t know what I’ll do. I feel like I have to prepare for whatever might happen now.

Me: No you don’t. All you’re doing when you worry is borrowing trouble from some invisible future, which may or may not even happen, and ruining a perfectly good now. This bully may grow up over the summer.  Her family could move to Topeka. [She laughs.] Your ex-boyfriend could have a sex change. [She’s still laughing.] It’s good to laugh, because we just don’t know what the future holds. So it’s laughably silly to try to guess at it, especially when all that does is cause us to feel miserable right now, where those problems don’t even exist. Whenever you start to worry, ask yourself if this problem is in front of you right now [I put my open palm two inches from my face]. If it’s not, just say, “That’s future-me’s problem.” Let’s try it. So is the bully here right now?

Girl: No, but …

Me: STOP! Is she here right now?

Girl: No.

Me: Then do you need to worry about her? Or is it “future-me’s problem”?

Girl: It’s future-me’s problem.

Me: And is your ex here right now? [I look under the couch.]

Girl: No.

Me: …

Girl: [Laughs] That’s future-me’s problem.

Here’s the approach (really the mental system ) that I use whenever that feeling of anxiety, worry or fear tries to worm its way into my thoughts:

1.  I ask myself right away, “Will this matter in a year [or a week, or tomorrow]?” If the honest answer is NO, it instantly helps me put things in perspective, because a NO means that I realize it will resolve itself at some point. But whether I answered this question NO or YES, I move on to the next step.

2.  I ask myself, “What can I do about this right now?” If I can think of an answer, I do that thing immediately. If I think someone may have misunderstood me, I call them. If I’m worried about a health concern or car issue, I call to make an appointment. If I assess that there’s nothing I can do right now, I move on to the next step.

3.  I ask myself, “What is the next thing I can do about this, and when?” Whatever I come up with, I jot it down on a piece of paper or in my phone’s Notes app, or record an audio note to self. This works wonders. Whenever this particular worry comes up again, I remind myself immediately that I can’t do anything about it right now, but that I’ve already recorded what I can do next, and when. Externalizing worry this way allows you to quite literally put it “out of mind” and focus on the here and now – as well as to sleep, if worry hits you during the night.

4.  If I assess that there is nothing I can do right now, and nothing I can do at any future time – I let it go. If the worry comes back, I tell myself that I’ve already considered all that I could do about it. It falls into the realm of what I cannot control, so thinking about it and guessing what might happen is a pointless distraction, a waste of valuable energy and a thief of happiness.

how to not worry: worrying about what I cannot control is a pointless distraction, a waste of valuable energy and a thief of happiness.

I can tell you first-hand that you really can discipline yourself to un-worry, by approaching life’s anomalies with a consistent mental system like this one.

If your worries are about things from your past, you may also benefit from this post: regret.

You can read more about handling worry, stressful situations and “irregular people” in the book, The Best Advice So Far.

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