How do I learn to stop worrying and love...well, everything.
January 10, 2006 2:51 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn how to stop worrying, and being anxious, and get on with life? One of my biggest flaws is worrying about a negative outcome in most aspects of my life. Even though I know that in general my life is ok, and indeed I am lucky in many ways, I worry daily about it all going wrong, and this is having a negative effect on my quality of life. How do I learn to live and enjoy life without unnecessary worry?

In the last year I have had a couple of health scares that have turned out to be probably caused by stress - and I think my own anxiety has started to become part of the problem - trying to track down my symptoms has revealed the host of improbable and mostly fatal things that also share those symptoms. Which I then of course worry will leave my children orphaned. And that's not fun thinking.

I worry in social situations, that everyday actions could be misinterpreted - a friendly look met with 'he's staring at me! Stalker!', my mishearing of what someone says leading to them believing I'm an ignorant sod and a snob who thinks little of them. I accidentally use an unsecured wireless connection at work for half an hour and I fret that Joe Q Crim now has all of my passwords - you name it, I can imagine a scenario in which it all goes horribly wrong.

I don't like being like this. There are things to be concerned about, and I would rather be concerned about them in a healthy, rational way. And not concerned about the things that aren't a worry, just a ridiculous improbability. While I'm sure it's human nature (and maybe even a little prudent) to be a little anxious inside your head - sociopaths aside - I think it has got out of balance in my life.

What I'm doing about it now includes starting to practice meditation, and trying to think positively and count my blessings, and recognise what's gone well for myself. I've also started exploring some Buddhist thoughts about recognising, and coming to terms with, impermanence, doubt, and fear, which seem interesting.

Any suggestions? Have you felt like this and really made a change in your life? How have you done it?

I'd be really interested to hear from anyone else who meditates - if you can recognise yourself in me, has meditating helped you? What else has worked well?

I'm looking for suggestions that don't include pharmaceuticals, please. I really don't want to go down that route. As I'm posting anon, thank you all in advance for posting, I really do appreciate it.

(Of course, I just *know* that the anonymous posting will go wrong here, my boss and social circle will read it and recognise that it is me, and decide I am a loose cannon. I will be shunted off into a dead-end role and I will get frustrated and walk out on my job and then find I can't get another, then my children will be put in an orphanage and given gruel and I will live in a cardboard box on the street and sell clothes pegs until the night-weasels get me. OK, maybe a little exaggerated, but I'm fed up of thinking along those lines about *everything*.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I stopped worrying when I got a Palm. Whenever something came to me that I started worrying about, I instead added it to my to-do list.

Then I didn't have to worry about it anymore because it was in my Palm.

Then after a few years of doing that, I embraced GTD.

And I don't worry too much anymore. Well, not TOO much.
posted by k8t at 3:04 PM on January 10, 2006

Wow. I don't know much in the way of suggestions; I will just say that while reading this I thought to myself what? I don't remember posting this.

I'm in the exact same boat as you. One week it's cancer, the next week it's aortic dissection, the week after something else. It sounds ridiculous on the face of it (and, well, it is), but it really eats me up.

I will say that meeting my wife, marrying her, and really growing into a comfortable and happy life with her has done wonders for my anxiety. I never knew that I could feel so.. safe, and peaceful (mostly).

Though I don't know if anything will ever entirely allay the phony fears created by my anxiety. Two points; Excercise certainly helps. When I'm routine with my workouts my mind is much calmer and there's less of the existential drea and mortal terror.

Also, my wife's a yoga instructor, and sometimes when I take part in her routines, and sometimes it's just simple breathing exercises she teaches me, it helps a lot too. I need to be more routine about that.
posted by xmutex at 3:06 PM on January 10, 2006

Oh, another aspect of my anxiety is that it's often increased/magnified by things that seem otherwise very good. Like when I met my wife, and realized how great she was for my life, well that started the whole vicious anxiety circle of well now she's going to leave you. It's anything anything good that you do for yourself or that you obtain just adds another fear that you will lose it.

posted by xmutex at 3:15 PM on January 10, 2006

If you are interested in counseling at all you might want to look into cognitive-behavioral therapy, or even books on cog-beh therapy (I believe the Anxiety & Phobia Workbook is one a lot of people recommend).

While I don't meditate per se, I find that exercise has really helped me to manage my stress & anxiety a great deal.

Good luck - I dealt with some serious anxiety for 2 years after I graduated college & moved into the real world, and it can be really debilitating. It's great that you are working to find ways to manage this before it really disrupts your life.
posted by tastybrains at 3:22 PM on January 10, 2006

I've had problems with anxiety, social situations, strange compulsions...(and a lot of other things that are too boring to mention). I tried anti-anxiety medication, but nothing helped until a friend mentioned TM. It really changed my life and helped me to relax. I can't recommed it enough!
posted by super_not at 3:26 PM on January 10, 2006

Look further into "Buddhist thoughts about recognizing, and coming to terms with, impermanence, doubt, and fear"

Learning to control my thoughts was (and is) the most difficult thing I've ever done (do), but it works. Accepting your own insignificance is liberating.The idea of Right-View started the ball rolling for me.

Be patient.
posted by larry_darrell at 3:42 PM on January 10, 2006

Stop thinking and analyzing everything so damn much. This is what helps me.
posted by cellphone at 3:42 PM on January 10, 2006

Stop thinking and analyzing everything so damn much.

So much easier said than done.
posted by xmutex at 3:43 PM on January 10, 2006

All I will suggest is to read Feeling Good and Learned Optimism. I learned about these both through AskMe. They have done a lot to teach me about how my thoughts have dictated my actions. And instead of teaching you to repeat positive platitudes to yourself, or think about everyone else's suffering (this works for some but I have found these to be little help), it focuses on challenging your internal narrative and changing it permanently.

I never would have thought a year ago that I would be recommending books with cheesy titles like this, but hey, whatever works. I've read these both in the past few months and they have changed how I see myself and my past significantly. But the process of permanently changing your thought patterns can be a long and difficult one if your problems have been going on for awhile, and may require some help. And of course, excercise is always helpful.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 3:44 PM on January 10, 2006

Stop thinking and analyzing everything so damn much.

So much easier said than done.
posted by xmutex at 3:43 PM PST on January 10 [!]

When you're serious about it and want to be genuinely happy instead of revelling in your worry, you can make it work. Things like cutting out caffeine and other stimulants, as well as sugar seem to help in small amounts. Other than that, it really is an issue of will.
posted by cellphone at 3:47 PM on January 10, 2006

This used to be me and to a certain extent still is me. However, three things have helped me a lot

1. aggressive exercise. Days when I swim a half mile are often days when I don't have enough extra nervous energy to fret about things. Regular yoga classes also helped with this a lot, as well as a change in eating more healthy stuff (less meat, more veggies, less caffeine and sugar, basic stuff). I'm a little too fidgety for meditation mostly, but if I'm really feeling about-to-cry stressed about something, taking ten minutes to go stare at the ceiling can bring me back to functional levels usually.

2. drugs. I don't mean prescribed anti-anxiety medication, I mean recreational drugs. I'm not suggesting this per se, just relating an anecdote. I spent a few months a long time ago taking drugs for fun that happened to have one odd side effect: they made my anxiety vanish. I don't think I can ever remember being non-anxious before and it was an interesting sensation. Once I'd spent time in a non-anxious state, it made it a bit more obvious that the anxiety wasn't based on anything, that it was my mind that was playing anxiety games with me. For some reason, that has made it much easier to deal with similar levels of anxiety now. Since I can see a split "this is my anxiety talking, and this is me not listening to it" I can try to act more rational in situations that make me anxious. Any way that you can find to highlight that dichotomy might be helpful for you.

3. In line with this, having a friend you trust who you can ask "is this normal behavior?" sometimes helps to find a middle path between being totally anxious and ignoring thing that you should pay attention to.
posted by jessamyn at 3:57 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's funny, because I've found that caffeine has actually helped my anxiety. When I drink moderate amounts of green tea, I feel more confident and directed. I tend to be most anxious and negative when I am even slightly tired. But of course the effect is fleeting, so it's not the cure to anxiety problems by any means.

And recreational drugs sure didn't help my anxiety, so I would take that suggestion with a bit of caution. I'm not disputing that it helped jessamyn, but recreational drugs can be very idiosyncratic in their effects, so it may be for some by not others.
posted by BloodyWallet at 4:05 PM on January 10, 2006

I second both Feeling Good by David Burns and Getting Things Done by David Allen. Further, I recommend The Now Habit by Dr. Neil Fiore.

Feeling Good is absolutely indispensable. For me, it compressed about 6 months of therapy into one reading. The practices it discusses, basically a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, can help one control one's mind (stopping negative thinking habits). Getting Things Done and The Now Habit can help a lot in recognizing the role of work and play in life as well as removing professional/financial success from one's own self-worth.

Secondly, if you have a close friend or two, let them inside your world a bit and tell them that once in awhile you need some unsolicited affirmation. It sounds so hokey, but being told that you're a good person and that you're loved out of the blue can do wonders. You needn't ascribe to any religious/spiritual belief for meditation to work. I am a secular humanist, and meditation, controlled breathing, etc. have helped me greatly. Simply recognizing that we as a species are what we are, and centering exercises help us, is enough.
posted by 7878ponce at 4:38 PM on January 10, 2006

I've pretty prone to anxiety and worry. Several things have helped signficantly over the past few years, though -- namely yoga and regular exercise in general, therapy, and (most recently) meditating. What all of these things have in common is that they've helped me learn how to stay in the moment. This is the number one thing that worrying, for me, is about -- seeing the future as some elaborate chess game wherein I've got to set up some perfect strategy in order to accomodate every possible outcome, including the worst-case scenario. This is, of course, completely crazy-making.

When I feel myself going off on this course, I tend to rein myself in a couple of ways -- I ask myself what I'm afraid of in the particular situation. Then I remind myself that whatever happens, I can handle it. The proof? I have been able to handle everything else that's ever happened to me (including actually having cancer!). You have, too: you just need to give yourself the credit for having that capacity. In other words: take care of the present, and the future will take care of itself.

A couple of books that may help: The Feeling Good Handbook (cognitive approach that helps you untwist irrational patterns of thinking/worrying); Women Who Think Too Much (that is, assuming you're a woman! I haven't read it myself, but a friend of mine -- who's a cognitive psychologist herself -- swears by it); and Comfortable With Uncertainty (collection of Buddhist meditations, teachings, etc. by Pema Chodron). Good luck!
posted by scody at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Rather then looking for a cure for your problem, you could try looking at the source. I think it's pretty clear that your problem is one of perspective, that your view of life is excessively microscopic. So how do you change your perspective? Well one good way is to look at the information you use to establish a picture of what you perceive life to be. If, for example, you watch the news at night, you could completely be forgiven for going to bed with your stomach in knots because attention-grabbing (ie disturbing) news is de rigour.
I look at it like this - if I ate burgers every day, it'd be of no surprise that my physical health would deteriorate, and conversley if I eat salads and fresh fruit then my health will be better; and if I feed myself poor information on a daily basis (as we regrettably are prone to receive) then it'd be of no surprise that my mental health would deteriorate, and conversely if I monitor my incoming information - like I monitor my diet - and feed myself information of better quality, then my mental health and perspective on life will improve.
Buddha said 'we are what we think', so rather than trying to expunge your negative thoughts, perhaps try and nourish yourself with more positive - or at least less dramatic - ones. Baggini's What's It All About? would be an excellent start.
posted by forallmankind at 4:43 PM on January 10, 2006

Therapy. Find a therapist you like, one who can remind you about the illogic involved in your neuroses. When you can deal with it on your own, quit the therapy. Seriously, having an objective person to bounce your stressful thoughts off of is a major relief in times of crisis. Also, keep in mind that to truly enjoy your life, you can't be constantly worried about the future/what ifs.
posted by Radio7 at 4:50 PM on January 10, 2006

This is called "catastrophizing." It's within the spectrum of anxiety and depressive kinds of states. Don't worry - it's normal and a lot of people experience it. It's definitely something you can change.

It's something that cognitive behavioral therapy and self-help approaches deal with a lot. Hypnotherapy can be helpful also. If you're not into finding a therapist, check out the self-help section of a bookstore to find a book that speaks to you. Some good titles are mentioned above.

Good for you for taking up meditation. I once had someone describe achieving a meditative state in which they could just watch the catastrophizing thoughts drift by, one after another. She didn't need to get caught up in them, just watched them as if they were scenery outside a train window. It was a very profound experience for her, in that she discovered that she wasn't her thoughts.
posted by jasper411 at 4:53 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Meditation is a great start. Exercise also makes a huge difference. There are a ton of things you can do to deal with whatever situation is at hand; the trick is to find the coping skills that work best for you. Then there are ways to deal with the anxiety itself. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is known to be incredibly effective for anxiety in particular, and it will provide you with the tools you'll need to address all of these things. Find a CBT therapist if you need a coach, especially if you haven't talked to one before. Find resourceful books (Mind Over Mood takes a CBT approach and comes highly recommended by professionals). Talk to people who have experienced anxiety, and see what you find useful (there are plenty of support groups out there).

Me? I use thought processes learned through cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques, journal writing, exercise, and list-making (to break daunting projects into smaller, more approachable steps that can be checked off). When on the verge of a panic attack, distraction and relaxation techniques will bring me down to the level where I can address the issue. Having somebody to talk to is invaluable.

Be proactive; you can do incredible things for yourself.
posted by moira at 5:24 PM on January 10, 2006

You are not alone, so many people have this problem! You should look into getting some therapy. Most therapists are very familiar with this type of catastrophic thinking and can help you to get to the root of why you feel this way, and also help you to find coping techniques.

I used to have a major problem with anxiety, and it grew into actual panic disorder, I would have debilitating panic attacks that would wreak havoc on my life and my health. Don't let stigmas about therapy scare you away. Begin looking for a therapist. Call a bunch, and talk to them and see if they're the right one for you. If you go to someone and you don't like them, perservere, it often takes a few tries to find someone that's right for you.

In the meantime, think of some good coping mechanisms that work for you. I found that when it came to health scares and irrational fears about my health, I refused to look at WebMD or any other medical sites, and if I felt truly ill, I made an appointment with my doctor. Talk to your doctor about it, he or she may have a referral for you for a good therapist.

Regarding social anxiety, as odd as this seems, I found comfort and confidence in remembering the fact that nobody is thinking of me as much as I thought that they were. When I thought of it in that way, I realized that it was somewhat narcissistic and self-centered to think that everybody was analyzing my every move, this helped me to be a bit more pragmatic.

Good luck to you. You owe it to yourself to seek some help and improve your life and get rid of this thing! I thought I'd never be able to, and I did it, with hard work and therapy. You can too. Take care of yourself and remember that you're gonna be fine.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:41 PM on January 10, 2006

I highly recommend Energetic Boundaries: Practical Protection and Renewal Skills for Healers, Therapists, and Sensitive People.

Some of my anxiety comes from being extremely aware of others moods and feelings, and the above cd workshop helped me deal with that. It's also just incredibly calming, and makes me feel safe. Be warned -- there is some corniness at the very beginning of each cd, but what comes after that is great.
posted by alma at 5:58 PM on January 10, 2006

I've been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder for a couple of years and have dealth with it through pharmaceuticals, therapy and other stuff.

From my experience, although root causes may be similar, the most effective therapies are different for each person. I would encourage you to try a lot of different things and not to become discouraged if what you are told is "the" solution turns out not to work for you.

That being said, I will cast another vote for Feeling Good. I found it such an immediate relief to read something that seemed to describe my situation so closely. Also, I would not have been able to stabilise my life without the aid of pharmaceuticals. I think a blanket dismissal of anti-anxiety medications is unproductive.

My email is in my profile if you want more advice.

Good luck.
posted by docgonzo at 6:20 PM on January 10, 2006

Also, some antidepressants also have anti-anxiety properties without the sedating effects of tranquilizers. That helped me, too.
posted by scody at 6:40 PM on January 10, 2006

As jasper411 mentioned, the most illuminating thing for me about meditation and yoga was discovering that separation between "me" and whatever was going on in my monkey-mind head. That simple realization has helped me from getting so caught up in disaster-planning to-do lists.
posted by occhiblu at 7:28 PM on January 10, 2006

Therapy, relaxation techniques, and just generally remembering to slow down and calm down have helped considerably (I have general anxiety crossed with social anxiety). Also, Lexapro. I would not discount SSRIs. Oh, and regular massage has helped even more. (Please note that I exercised heavily before getting treatment, and exercise does help, but it never took me all the way. It was something good I was doing before that I have kept up.)

What pushed me into treatment, finally, was sustaining injuries in a hit-and-run, out-of-the-blue accident over the summer. It left me more anxious than ever, in a temporarily debilitating way, and I just wanted to see my way out of that. The therapy and medication has helped, but I think it helped because I wanted to change. And the change is a wonderful thing. I can already witness a difference in how people view me. It's not quite night-and-day, but it's close. (I'm a college instructor. I had lower ratings in a few areas on student evals--say, clarity of course objectives and whatnot, but my personal ratings were way ahead of where they'd been in the past. In short, the little stuff was ignored, and I was viewed in a more positive light overall.)
posted by raysmj at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2006

If your fear is rooted in the unknown, the fact that your actions might have consequences so numerous that you simply can't forsee them, the first step is to prove yourself wrong. Think about the worst thing that could happen, and work out the worst case scenario rationally, and prove to yourself that you can handle it. For example, suppose you are worried about being caught staring at someone who then thinks you're a stalker. So what? What consequences will it have on your life that a near-stranger thinks you're stalker-ish? Not much of one. They might avoid you. Flip it around. What would YOU do if you thought someone was stalker-ish? They'll probably do the same.

There are six bilion people on the planet. That means you've got five billion nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine second chances even if you totally screw up. What any one person thinks of you is nearly irrelevant.

Sure, there are special circumstances like: suppose it's the boss's daughter that thinks you're stalker-ish. Well, it's likely that eventually she'll get to know you and realize you're not, even assuming she thinks that at first, but what's the worst case scenario -- suppose she totally overreacts? What might happen? Well, she might cause an unpleasant scene. Unpleasant scenes are survivable. If she convinces her dad your stalking her, you might lose your job. But you can get another one. If there's a restraining order, would that really affect your life? Not if you're not a stalker! Go through all the possible consequences and reassure yourself that even if you are 1000 times worse than you think you are, you will not ruin your life.

In reality the worst that is likely to happen is that you will commit some social faux pas, usually a minor one. These are 100% completely survivable. Your life will not be ruined by it. At the root of this issue, I suspect, is that you simply care too much what other people think of you, and you think they are constantly judging you and that you're coming up short. Even if they do think badly of you, so what? Perhaps you want everyone to like you. Guess what, there are assholes who would find a reason to hate (insert name of most virtuous, respected, and liked person you know -- Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Theresa). Not everyone you meet will like you, any more than you like everyone you meet. Accept it and move on.
posted by kindall at 9:21 PM on January 10, 2006

Feeling Good, anonymous. It can't be said enough. Your worries are a kind of habit of the brain, and you should work on answering those worries -- which are usually unrealistic extrapolations -- with pragmatic, common-sense answers.

(Of course, I just *know* that the anonymous posting will go wrong here, my boss and social circle will read it and recognise that it is me, and decide I am a loose cannon. I will be shunted off into a dead-end role and I will get frustrated and walk out on my job and then find I can't get another, then my children will be put in an orphanage and given gruel and I will live in a cardboard box on the street and sell clothes pegs until the night-weasels get me. OK, maybe a little exaggerated, but I'm fed up of thinking along those lines about *everything*.)

Answer: Perhaps you'll be recognized, but so what? If someone thinks less of you for seeking help for a personal issue, that's their problem. If they think it's you, they'll probably be sympathetic. They might do or say some things that would make you uncomfortable, but chances are they mean well. Maybe you'll be put in a different job for any of many reasons, but so what? You'll deal. It could be the change of pace you need, or it could be the proof that this company isn't for you. That's when you can decide to strike out in a different direction and find something more fulfilling! Maybe when your children are seeking gruel on the street, they will befriend a night-weasel and bring it home as a pet, and you can cook it for soup.

OK, see, that's easy enough to do. ;-) With practice, it becomes a habit -- and the worry habit doesn't even rear its head.
posted by dhartung at 10:39 PM on January 10, 2006

Here's what's helped a lot for me personally:

I thought I was just anxious about things. Then I started therapy with a good clinical psychologist. Together we realized that I had a lot of depression that was hidden behind my anxiety. A low dosage of prozac has helped me heavily with both my depression and my anxiety. They were linked in me, and they may be in you. At the dosage I'm taking there's basically NO side effects for me, which I've confirmed on a few drug holidays.

Go find a good clinical/behavioral psychologist.
posted by JZig at 2:23 AM on January 11, 2006

i was like this, but for just a week, about 5 years ago. it was some kind of weird mental problem that just went away again (it was triggered by stress).

anyway, my point is, when it did go away i was in tears with relief. it was awful. "normal" life is so much better.

you don't deserve to live like this. it's not normal and it can probably be fixed. i don't have a clue how (i was just lucky), but i think you should see a professinal (in my limited experience whether it's a psychologist, psychiatris or counsellor matters a lot less than that you like them and they're sensible, friendly and reliable, so see a few and pick the best).

you're probably so used to this you don't realise just how wonderful life can be without it. i promise you - it is way way better. it's like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

and no, they're not going to decide you are insane, lock you up, and sell your children for dogmeat, ok? :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 3:28 AM on January 11, 2006

There many different ways to do it, or describe it.

Bottom line: Control your thoughts (instead of the other way around).

When you find yourself thinking about something you don't want to think about, say "Stop" out loud, and then do it.
posted by ewkpates at 5:00 AM on January 11, 2006

Whenever you find yourself being anxious, find one or more things related to that situation for which you are thankful. This implies that there is someone to whom thanks is due (God). It's what The Bible says to do to treat anxiety. It sounds to simple, but it really works for me.
posted by kc0dxh at 6:37 AM on January 11, 2006

One other thought I had last night. These anxieties you have could be a source of tremendous creativity. The way you describe your process and your fears was very creative and funny. I heard David Sedaris once say that everything changed for him once he started writing about his fears, rather than trying to get rid of his fears so that he could write. After all, he said, what else do I have to write about?
posted by jasper411 at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2006

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