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Worry: Is It Worthwhile Work or a Waste of Time?

As tools for change are discussed, one tool - that you might not have thought of - attains a unique status. That tool is WORRYING. Yes, worrying. Most of us wish we worried less. But worrying might be a good thing, not necessarily bad. It's a brain mechanism that weighs alternatives. Even though by definition worry is one of the processes that weighs possible outcomes and consequences (usually with emphasis on the negative), nevertheless it's a decision making tool.

Since worry forces us to evaluate various alternatives, courses of action or ways of thinking, it can be approached in such a way that it can assist us in focusing on the possible positive outcomes of a situation, as well. The drawback, of course, is that we've been conditioned all our lives to think of worry as a stress-producing negative event or process. Just look at the contrast in the song title "Don't Worry, Be Happy." It's as though the very act of worrying destroys any chance of contentment, happiness or joy.

But here's the good news. Looked at from another perspective, we could say that worry is nature's way of helping us anticipate - and avoid - danger. So - what's the answer? Is worry good or bad?

That depends. Worry can be GOOD if it's the right KIND of worry.

Good worry is: an exercise in constantly looking for and anticipating possible problems, thus enabling us to take quick action to minimize the problem or eliminate it before it happens. And in the event it happens anyway, the right kind of worry can give us ready-made solutions that can be implemented quickly. More about this in a moment.

The other kind of worry is TOXIC worry. This is not good. Toxic worry produces negative feelings like vulnerability and powerlessness. These feelings tend to immobilize us. Or it's ruminative...worry that keeps on going in circles, over and over the same problem ground, producing only frustration without any forward progress or toward actions to solve the source or cause of the worry.

By the way, those negative feelings - vulnerability and powerlessness - generally come up almost simultaneously in the course of the session of toxic worry, and they set up a uniquely circular mental action. The less powerful you feel, the more vulnerable you become. The more vulnerable you are, the more powerless you feel.

No doubt, you're going to worry. The trick is to worry WELL. Here's how, according to Dr. Ed Hallowell of Harvard University Medical School. First let's suggest what you might do once the worrying has started...after you "catch yourself" worrying.

One: change your physical state. Get up from your desk and take a walk, exercise, create a distraction that is ACTIVE and involves your body and your mind. This will give you not only instant relief from the worry, but the physical action will change your body's chemistry so that when you return to your worrying you'll have a different perspective on the problem. My daughter, a massage therapist, has a wonderful solution. She gets a massage. The combination of the gentle quiet of the massage room and the comforting value of physical touching seem to relax and refresh her, and she tells me that enormous problems are often reduced to minor inconveniences when she distracts her thoughts by emptying her brain for a while. My other daughter uses meditation, and that works, too. She simply stops thinking for a while. I'm sure that most of you can do this, too. Check it out.

Two: don't worry alone. Get a "reality check" from a friend, mate, co-worker or confidant. This can help reestablish your optimism because your friends will assure you that it'll all work out OK. Many people I know find this the easiest way to break the worry cycle. If you find yourself in a worrying situation when you can't talk with others, even on the phone, get a pencil and paper and write about your worry. This will move the problem outside of your head. You may find it easier to deal with this way. Three: Look for thought patterns and take actions to change those patterns. What tends to trigger worry for you? Usually it's a life situation like financial insecurity, self-worth questions...subjects that might be easier to handle if you consulted an expert. Once a pattern emerges, you may be able to see what needs to be worked on. Now you can PLAN ways to break the pattern when it arises.

Take one little step at a time, and eventually you'll turn toxic worry into productive worry.

Now let's turn to ways to prevent worry. Here are four useful strategies. First, look at how you express yourself internally as you worry. Is your language negative? Probably! See if you can consciously focus on your internal language and get rid of the negative terminology. Mechanically, you have to stop the negative thought stream, so say "Stop" - even out loud, if you're alone. "Stop the negativity" is a short sentence you can use. Then rephrase your worry as a problem that has a solution. Are you worried about a presentation you have to do tomorrow? Say to yourself, "Sure I'm concerned, I ought to be. But I'll do fine. All I have to do is..." then list in your mind the actions you can take that will increase your confidence, minimize the risk of mistakes, and so forth.

Next, stay active. All the time. Set up a regular schedule of exercise. Might be walking, bike riding, gym workout, handball...whatever. Just get a routine going. You'll find that you're not worrying as much. Believe it or not, physical activity actually changes brain chemistry. Mood-altering chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine are processed more easily, producing a generally more elevated baseline mood. The net result is that positive thought is accessed more easily and negative thought is less likely to occur and easier to extinguish if it does show up.

Earlier I mentioned meditation as a way to stop worry after it's started. It also works as a preventive measure. Prayer works, too, if you are religiously inclined. A regular routine of introspection and mental/emotional clearing is a great worry preventer. Like exercise, meditation and prayer can have remarkable effects on brain chemistry. Finally, get yourself a support group...not specifically for worry, but simply to have a source of input for times when worry might come up. Often by talking about it in advance, your support group can help you avoid the incidence of worry. You can, in effect, head it off at the pass and get some valuable positive input at the same time. Don't overlook this simple tool that will also work for you when worry sneaks up on you and occupies your mind in spite of your best efforts. Taking your concerns to the group will get you enormously valuable support.

Copyright 2002, 2005 Optimum Performance Associates/Paul McNeese.

Paul McNeese is CEO of Optimum Performance Associates, a consulting firm specializing in transitional and transformational change for individuals and institutions through publication. His publishing company, OPA Publishing, is an advocacy for self-publishing authors of informational, instructional, inspirational and insightful nonfiction.

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