Are you a worrying type? Take up one task at a time

Are you a worrying type? Take up one task at a time

I was about to give an hourlong talk to hundreds of people when one of the organisers of the event asked, “Do you get nervous when you give speeches?” My response: Who, me? No. Of course not. But this was a half-truth.

I am a bit of a worrier, and one thing that makes me anxious is getting ready for these events: fretting over whether I’ve prepared the right talk, packed the right clothes or forgotten anything important, like my glasses.

Anxiety is a fact of life. I’ve yet to meet anyone, no matter how upbeat, who has escaped anxious moments, days, even weeks. Recently I succumbed when, rushed for time just before a Thanksgiving trip, I was told the tyres on my car were too worn to be driven on safely and had to be replaced. “But I have no time to do this now,” I whined.

“Do you have time for an accident?” my car-savvy neighbour asked. So, with a pounding pulse and no idea how I’d make up the lost time, I went off to get new tyres. I left the car at the shop and managed to calm down during the walk home, which helped me get back to the work I needed to finish before the trip.

It seems like such a small thing now. But everyday stresses add up, according to Tamar E Chansky, a psychologist in who treats people with anxiety disorders. You’ll be much better able to deal with a serious, unexpected challenge if you lower your daily stress levels, she said. When worry is a constant, “it takes less to tip the scales to make you feel agitated or plagued by physical symptoms, even in minor situations,” she wrote in her very practical book, “Freeing Yourself From Anxiety.”

Of course, there are often good reasons for anxiety. Certainly, people who lost their homes and life’s treasures – and sometimes loved ones – in Hurricane Sandy can hardly be faulted for worrying about their futures. But for some people, anxiety is a way of life, chronic and life-crippling, constantly leaving them awash in fears that prevent them from making moves that could enrich their lives.

In an interview, Chansky said that when real calamities occur, “you will be in much better shape to cope with them if you don’t entertain extraneous catastrophes.” By ‘extraneous,’ she means the many stresses that pile up in the course of daily living that don’t really deserve so much of our emotional capital – the worrying and fretting we spend on things that won’t change or simply don’t matter much.

Precious energy

“If you worry about everything, it will get in the way of what you really need to address,” she explained. “The best decisions are not made when your mind is spinning out of control, racing ahead with predictions about how things are never going to get any better. Precious energy is wasted when you’re always thinking about the worst-case scenarios.”

When faced with serious challenges, it helps to narrow them down to specific things you can do now. To my mind, Chansky’s most valuable suggestion for emerging from paralysing anxiety when faced with a monumental task is to ‘`stay in the present – it doesn’t help to be in the future.

“Take some small step today, and value each step you take. You never know which step will make a difference. This is much better than not trying to do anything.” Chansky told me, “If you’re worrying about your work all the time, you won’t get your work done.” She suggested instead that people ‘compartmentalise.’

Those prone to worry should set aside a little time each day simply to fret, she said – and then put aside anxieties and spend the rest of the time getting things done. This advice could not have come at a better time for me, as I faced holiday chores, two trips in December, and five columns to write before leaving at midmonth. Rather than focusing on what seemed like an impossible challenge, I took on one task at a time. Somehow it all got done.

Many worriers think the solution is positive thinking. Chansky recommends something else: think “possible.”
“When we are stuck with negative thinking, we feel out of options, so to exit out of that we need to be reminded of all the options we do have,” she writes in her book. If this is not something you can do easily on your own, consult others for suggestions.

During my morning walk with friends, we often discuss problems, and inevitably someone comes up with a practical solution. But even if none of their suggestions work, at least they narrow down possible courses of action and make the problem seem less forbidding.

She also suggests taking a break to do something physical: “Movement shifts the moment.” Take a walk or bike ride, call a friend, look through a photo album, or do some small cleaning task like clearing off your night table. When you have a clear head and are feeling less overwhelmed, you’ll be better able to figure out the next step.