“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain
I always swore that I would never in my life give my hard earned money to a psychic. I saw it as a waste of time and money, and as a total scam (except that one time I met that psychic at the bar – totally different).
Until last week….
In the midst of Houston’s annual Renaissance Festival I decided to give my hard earned money to a psychic. I couldn’t tell you why. I was three beers deep, and all the festival employees kept calling me “My Lord” like I was a real-life Game of Thrones character. I was in good spirits, I guess.
So I sit down with this woman and show her my palm. She sighs and says, “Oh my, you are a worrier. You worry way too much.”
Damn, she nailed that one.
I do worry. I worry about all sorts of things. Things that haven’t even occurred yet, and may never occur. One time, I spent three days worrying about something I said to my dad, and when I finally mustered up the courage to apologize he had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
Sure, we can always find real-life shit to worry about – political instability, economic collapse, terrorists living next door, a norovirus-infused Chipotle burrito.
On top of that, we have social anxiety, career hurdles, relationship woes, and our health to worry about.
Fear and worry are embedded in our DNA. We needed these emotional responses to be on high alert for other tribes or wild mammoths trying to kill us. Fear and worry triggered our body’s fight-or-flight response so we could GTFO when a predator was approaching our cave or hut.
But now, being on edge all the time can do more harm than good. Excessive worry causes sickness, social withdrawal, depression, cancer, bones to pop out of your skin, exploding toes, and more.
There’s even research showing that anxiety and fear can shorten these little proteins called telomeres – accelerating the aging process
Great, now I’m worried about being worried…
Worry, at least for me, happens when I think about the future. I think about where my career is headed. How I’m going to make money. Am I going to be homeless? The cancer diagnosis could come any day now.
So how can we stop worrying? How can we let go of future expectations and past experiences? I pulled from classic experts like Dale Carnegie and David Schwartz and the most recent science on happiness and positive psychology to give you the 5 Habits of Non-worriers(?)
Don’t stop reading now, the list is hot.
1) Habit of Attention
You’ve heard the old adage, “What you focus on grows.”
Often times, worriers go down this spiral of anxiety (kind like I did in the intro) where one thing piles onto another. We don’t even notice we are headed down this rabbit hole of shortened telomeres and exploding toes.
If we can just catch ourselves when we start spiraling, we can change the game. If you think about it, the only reason we worry is because we care. If we didn’t care about anything, we wouldn’t ever stress.
We’d also be dull and boring and have no friends. Anxiety and stress are our brain’s way of alerting us to something important to us, plus it’s a pleasant reminder that we’re real, living beings.
Stressed about the exam? It’s because you value doing well in school and increasing your chances of success.
Anxious about a date? It’s because you want to make a good impression.
Are these things inherently bad? Of course not. In her book, The Upside of Stress, my professor crush Kelly Mcgonigal talks about how stress can be used as energy and motivation rather than anxiety and deterioration. What matters is our perception of it. When we see stress and anxiety as “bad” we get all the bad that comes with it (cancer, exploding toes, and all). If, however, we see stress as a powerful energy to help us go after things we care about, our whole biology changes.
How can you do this? Notice when you begin to worry. What are you thinking about? Now, ask yourself why you care? How does this “thing” line up with your values in life? When we match stress and worry with our values we see it as motivating and inspiring rather than deadly.
And what you focus on grows….
- Catch yourself worried
- Ask yourself, why is this meaningful to me?
2) Habit of Action
“Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, on the other hand, fertilize fear” – David Schwartz in The Magic of Thinking Big
It is usually in times of Netflix and Chill that we begin to worry. When we sit around and let our minds wonder, we start comparing ourselves to others. We begin to think about how we’re not living up to our idea of success. We ponder all the ways we’re effing up in life.
I wrote before about the most miserable months of my life where I had nothing on my to do list, and the more time I had to relax, the more anxious and miserable I became.
If you notice yourself worrying a lot, add some things to your to do list. Winston Churchill was quoted saying, “I’m too busy. I have no time for worrying.”
He also said, “I never worry about action, only inaction.”
And because quotes are hot right now, the great Dale Carnegie once said,
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
If you don’t get the takeaway here, I can’t help you… DO. SOMETHING.
3) Habit of Probability
I confess. I love Chipotle. At one point in 2015, I was eating there 3-4 times per week. Sometimes I would do lunch and dinner there. I know, I am embarrassed just writing this.
At the height of my obsession was the rock bottom of the Chipotle brand. Breakouts of E. Coli and salmonella seemed to be everywhere I turned.
A good friend of mine was in an all-out panic every time I told him I was headed to Chipotle. He was extremely concerned for my intestines.
But that’s when I started eating more Chipotle! They were dishing out free bowls and burritos like it was candy on Halloween.
Let’s pause for a moment. What are the actual chances that I’d get sick? Considering Chipotle does millions in annual revenue, and there were about 350 unfortunate souls that got hit, I’d have a less than .008% chance (roughly).
And with free food and no lone as the possible upside, I was willing to take that risk.
This is the effect the news has on us, the more news we watch, the more likely we think our neighbor is going to kidnap and rape us, sell our babies to the Mexican cartel, feed us salmonella-infused burritos, and steal our life-savings with one click of the mouse.
If we can take a step back and look at the actual chances of things occurring, it can change the lens with which we look at the world, and thereby change how much worry and stress we have.
So what is it that you’re worried about? What is the actual probability of your worst nightmare becoming a reality? Data baby, it’s sexy.
What’s the actual likelihood of X event happening? Google it. How often has this event happened to me (or people like me) in the past?
4) Habit of Gratitude
Take out a sheet of paper, and write down 5 things you feel postivie about right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Do you have a good family? Did you hit the game-winner in your pick-up basketball league? Is your pantry flushed with popcorn? Are you in good shape? Do you like your job? Did you walk down the cereal aisle at the grocery store and get all nostalgic about seeing the Captain Crunch Oops! All Berries you ate as a kid?
Research by the University of Chicago study showed that writing about your positive feelings decreased anxiety & worry (+ increased memory for reasons I don’t quite understand…).
Worry arises in so many of us from a feeling of lack. Like we’re missing something or we’re not good enough. We worry that we’ll end up homeless even though we have a job and a great support system. We worry that we’ll be single forever despite the fact that we’re a catch. We worry that we might not last until 2029 when the final season of Game of Thrones is released even though we have never missed an episode.
The ability to refocus our attention on what we have rather than what we don’t is one of the most powerful ways to eliminate worry and anxiety. As humans, we grow use to what we have. It’s called hedonic adaptation. If we don’t remind ourselves how lucky we are, we can easily fall into the swirl of lack and focus on what we don’t have leaving us empty and anxious.
You’re kidding, right? Did you even read this section?
5) Habit of Connection
Almost 50 years ago, George Vaillant took over a study that began in the late 1930’s. He followed 268 men over the course of their lives in attempt to identify the most important factors of a happy, fulfilling life.
After a years of focus on a single project, he said he could sum up his findings in one word: “love – full stop.”
“Our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.” He said.
We are wired to connect. Period. It doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert, extravert, octopussyvert, whatever. People matter. They matter to our health, our wealth, our happiness, our success, our meaning, our purpose, and yes, our worry and anxiety.
Practicing connecting with people is the single most powerful driver to becoming a non-worrier. The times we become anxious and worried are often times when we are too focused on ourselves. The best way to practice the habit of connection is to focus on others.
What random act of kindness did you perform today? Can you write a note (thank you note, dirty note, whatever kind of note you’d like)?
In the end, almost all the things we spend our lives worried over either never happen or aren’t important. But people matter. The social relationships we invest in matter.
- Random Acts of Kindness
- Thank you notes
- Look outwards, not inwards
In short, worry is a habit. It’s a thought pattern that deepens and deepens the more we practice it. But there are habits that we can develop that work against worry and anxiety. Refocus your attention – notice your worried, connect to your values, and refocus on what you have, not lack. Then take action. Take a shit-ton of it. And preferably take it in the direction towards connecting with others.
And then watch as the months pass, your habits change, and your worry withers away. Your probability of cancer and exploding toes go down, so you stop thinking about it. And then you’re sitting there, across from a palm reader as she wonders aloud, “Wow, you never seem to worry and you have very long telomeres.”
Achor, Shawn. 2010. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance At Work. N.Y.: Crown Business.
McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It. Avery, a member of Penguin Random House, 2015.
“Shenk, J. W. (June 2009). What makes us happy? The Atlantic Monthly.”
“Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock, “Writing about Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom,” abstract, Science, January 14, 2011, www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/211.abstract.”