Worry suddenly washes over me sometimes, and I find it hard to explain to other people. I worry about my mum getting sick. I worry that I’m spending too much. I worry that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings or that I’ve done something wrong if a friend doesn’t text me back.
My friend Charlotte told me that she worries that whenever her husband is late—coming home from the gym, for example—that he’s been in an accident (this happens to me on occasion too). My former boss Liz told me she pretends she’s sick to avoid public speaking because she’s lost her breath on stage before and loses sleep if she has to talk in front of a group.
So when worry and anxiety bubble up in your chest, first, know that you’re not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 18 percent of Americans are affected by anxiety. That’s almost in 1 in 5! It’s way more common than you think.
And although anxiety comes in many forms (from incessant worrying to more severe panic attacks), when I experience it personally, I’ve learned that asking myself certain questions can help calm me down.
They’re not a perfect solution, and they come from my personal experience only. But in times of worry, this inner probing has helped my clients and me a little. And oftentimes, even just a little relief from panic feels good. (Please note: These suggestions are more for those with fleeting worries as opposed to true anxiety disorders. If you're experiencing the latter, you should speak with a medical professional.)
1. Is this really a threat?
In life, accidents do happen, yes. But most of the time, we worry about things that are very unlikely to go wrong. What is it that is making you worried? How possible is it really? Truly think about that for a second. Allow the practical nature of your question to help ground you.
Here are some of the most absurd worries I’ve had:
- My dog would get harmed from all of the jumping around caused by owning a Nintendo Wii (I promptly donated it.)
- The Wonder Wheel would break when we were on it (So our consolation prize was a corndog at Coney Island.)
- Someone would put drugs in our suitcase and we’d go to jail (I only carry on now – it’s more safe and efficient.)
My friend Louise once thought a staph infection on her thumb (a common outcome from a shoddy manicure we’ve since learned) was serious. There was a whole essay-length text chain about it (with photos)! She went to a doctor who gave her antibiotics and said, “If this happens again, you don’t need to come back. Your body will heal itself in days.”
Our overactive minds can make common situations seem far worse than they actually are.
2. Have I done all I can to be prepared?
This is where the portion of your life that you can control comes in. If you’re riding a bike, wear a helmet! Check that your fire alarm works. Make sure your insurance is up to date. Go for your annual checkup.
My sister always worries that she has left something on and checks all of the electrical outlets in her home before leaving. If that helps, great! What can you do to feel/be best prepared for what concerns you?
It may sound somber, but having a will or your paperwork in order, whatever it is that you can control, all ticked off, you might start to feel lighter. There's a big difference between planning and worrying—planning makes you feel empowered, calm, and clearer. In what area of your life can you replace stressing out with just getting stuff organized?
3. Is my mind just going into overdrive (like in the middle of the night)?
There’s nothing like a restless mind in the middle of the night to make us feel helpless, crazed, and desperate. It's almost like the nonstop stock news ticker at the bottom of a TV screen. And if your feels of panic pop up at 2:43 a.m., you have nothing like work, other people, or anything else to distract you.
But you can shift your thought loop with deep breaths or by throwing on a YouTube sleep meditation like this one. Remind yourself that dead-of-night worrying is often completely eradicated by the imminent light of day.
Most importantly, I’ve come to understand that worrying itself is the thing to fear. Seth Godin says, "Worry is useful when it changes our behavior in productive ways. The rest of the time, it's a negative form of distraction, an entertainment designed to keep us from doing our work and living our lives."
So next time panicked thoughts arise, ask: Is this really threatening? Have I done all I can to keep myself safe? Could this be a case of mental overdrive, which is going to pass (like it probably normally does)? If so, breathe into it. Take what’s useful from your fears and act. Control what you can. And remember that worry doesn’t make life any more predictable.
We may think we feel safer when we’re anxious, but it’s just an illusion. Focusing on worst-case scenarios will not keep bad things from happening. It’ll only keep you from making the most of all the good stuff that you have in the present.
Susie Moore is Greatist's life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!