Delicate flower buds announce the arrival of warm weather. Golden sunshine warms the air. The hope and possibility of the season are real. Yet, rather than savor the moment, you’re distracted by the familiar refrain of intrusive fears, ranging from practical concerns such as, What if my car breaks down again? to more emotional apprehensions like, What if I end up all alone? With all the curveballs life throws at us, it’s easy to get stuck in a worry spiral. Thankfully, experts say there are easy, empowering ways to shut off fear and spark joy.
While our brains are hardwired to imagine worst-case scenarios so we can prepare for every outcome, the whisper of what-ifs can easily grow into a deafening roar, hijacking our moods and preventing us from truly enjoying what is: the joy of now.
"More than 38 percent of us experience chronic fear, where we worry every day," reveals psychologist Robert L. Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure ($15.99, Amazon). "But the good news is that 85 percent of the events we fret over never happen." And what about the remaining 15 percent? "Just one year after a negative life event — such as getting laid off or going through a divorce — 80 percent of us are back to the same level of contentment as before it happened." In other words, we overestimate the challenges ahead and underestimate our resilient spirits.
Read on for simple strategies that help ward off the what-ifs and soothe stress with the grit, strength and optimism you already have within you.
The fear: "What if I can't do it and I fail?"
You’ve just been promoted and are excited about your new role — but at the same time, doubts about whether you can handle it creep into your mind and your mood goes from gung-ho to oh-no. "Thinking about how we might fail can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," cautions Jennice Vilhauer, PhD, author of Think Forward to Thrive ($14.95, Amazon). "And because negative emotions inhibit problem-solving, it becomes hard to strategize ways to succeed."
The fix: Change the channel.
Switch your emotional "frequency" by doing something you enjoy, like calling a friend or taking a walk, urges Vilhauer. "While worrying about what can go wrong causes tunnel vision, joy broadens your perspective, letting you plan ahead. When we expect things to go well, it’s easier to find ways to bring about that expectation."
The fear: "What if they don't like/love me?"
Spearheading the church bake sale, planning a party for your best friend, and giving your sister relationship advice are all in a day’s work... and it’s exhausting. Yet you worry that if you say no, you won’t be valued, or even included. Feelings of unworthiness are among the hardest fears to extinguish because they tend to be deeply rooted. Confirms Leahy, "These concerns can be the most subtle and intrusive, pulling our focus from the present moment."
The fix: Try active mindfulness.
Jot down your what-if like, What if I’m not worthy of love?, crumple the paper and toss it back-and-forth with a loved one, repeating, "I’m letting this fear go." "This is a physical form of mindfulness called 'embodied cognition,'" explains Leahy. "The same way smiling sparks joy, literally releasing the paper prompts the brain to release the belief or fear."
The fear: "What if a loved one gets sick?"
After a friend reveals she’s experienced a recent cancer scare, you breathe a sigh of relief that she’s okay. At the same time, alarm bells go off about what you would do if something similar happened to you or a loved one. "Worrying about our own health can be healthy, prompting us to take care of ourselves," says Randi McCabe, PhD, co-author of 10 Simple Solutions to Panic ($14.04, Amazon). "But when we’re afraid for someone we love, it can make us feel helpless."
The fix: Tap practical optimism.
"Instead of telling yourself loved ones will never get sick, reassure yourself with realistic optimism by saying, 'My family is fine right now,'" advises McCabe. "Then engage in productive worry — that is, taking small steps to address your fear, such as checking in on an aging relative or sharing a healthy recipe with a loved one. Taking action quells anxiety."
The fear: "What if the worst happens?"
You plan a long overdue vacation, but your excitement is soon eroded by fears that start out small, such as the specter of a canceled flight, and escalate fast: What if the plane goes down? "Our brains have the capacity to magnify worries until they’re all we can think about," says physician and minister Carol Peters-Tanksley, MD, author of Overcoming Fear & Anxiety Through Spiritual Warfare ($11.59, Amazon). "Yet studies show we can consciously choose where to direct our attention and make a shift from dread to hope."
The fix: Practice "collaborative" coping.
How to stop catastrophizing? Harness spiritual strength, urges Dr. Peters-Tanksley. "There are three styles of spiritual coping: (1) self-directing, believing it’s all up to you to solve problems, (2) deferential, looking to a higher power and (3) collaborative, meaning you team up with a higher power," she explains. "Collaborative coping is the most effective because it helps you let go of what you can’t control and take charge of what you can." She suggests a two-part prayer: Consider asking God (or the universe, nature, or any higher power you believe in) for help, then ask what you can do. This synergistic approach works for people of every faith and reminds us that we don’t have to face challenges alone.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.
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