We all love this time of year, when the lingering warmth of summer mixes with a hint of crisp fall air — but you may inevitably find your thoughts darting between financial dread and work worries. What if food prices keep rising? What if the economy gets worse? This kind of thinking can spur you to plan ahead, but it can also lead to out-of-control thought spirals that overwhelm your rational mind. Fortunately, learning how to stop worrying is easier than you might think. Read on for some expert-approved ways to transform unproductive worry into productive problem-solving, and mute the din of anxious thoughts with hope, joy, and confidence.
Meet our expert panel
- Robert Leahy, PhD, psychologist, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York and Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, author of Don’t Believe Everything You Feel (Buy from Amazon, $16.99).
- Maggie Baker, PhD, author of Crazy About Money (Buy from Amazon, $14.95).
- Jennifer L. Abel, PhD, author of The Anxiety, Worry and Depression Workbook (Buy from Amazon, $18.49).
Don’t give in to obsessing.
Can’t stop worrying about being able to pay your bills? You’re not alone — but that’s not necessarily a productive way to live. “Worry is a useful strategy that our brain developed to avoid being blindsided by threats,” says Dr. Leahy. “But when we over-perceive danger, our thoughts become obsessive, which hardwires channels in the brain that lead to more worry. It becomes a vicious cycle, and soon anxiety is the first thing we feel.”
As you scan the grocery aisles, sky-high prices can leave you reeling. But don’t let panic overpower you. “Money fears make us feel like we have no control over our lives,” says Dr. Baker. “This desire for control is the ‘monkey mind’ — though it’s a natural part of consciousness, we can slow it and alleviate anxiety.”
“We all face intrusive thoughts at times, but we can learn simple strategies to detach from them,” promises Dr. Leahy. “Think of worries like a telemarketer: ‘I hear you, I notice you, but you’re simply background noise.’”
Share your generous heart.
“When we feel helpless about our bottom line, we often either rebel, spending however we want, or we watch every cent like a hawk — but extremes don’t work,” says Dr. Baker. What does work? Shifting from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. In a study published in the journal Science, participants were given a $20 bill and asked to spend it however they liked. A whopping 83 percent of them spent it on others and reported a significant mood boost. “The pleasure of giving — be it your money, talents, or time — makes you feel freer, decreasing financial anxiety and letting you take the steps you need to be in control of your budget.”
Keep a worry ‘cheat sheet.’
Worried that the world is getting worse? Though you want to be informed, dire headlines keep you up at night. “Since we evolved in small groups, we’re not equipped to take on the pain of the world at-large,” says Leahy. In other words, seeing so much hardship puts your fears on “repeat,” not unlike the news crawl at the bottom of the TV.
It’s not your imagination: Fears do get louder at night, says Dr. Abel. “When we’re lying down, we’re more vulnerable, making worries feel worse.” She suggests grabbing a piece of paper and creating two columns: On the left, jot down your fears, and on the right, write three options: do something right now; do something tomorrow; do nothing. Simply checking the option that’s right for you will help you fall asleep because it gives you a plan that melts anxiety.
Put yourself first.
After a busy month, you might be too tired to pitch in with your church’s fundraiser. But you’re concerned others will be upset that you’re stepping back — and you shouldn’t be as concerned with that as you with self-care. “I see this a lot with women, who worry that nothing they do is good enough,” says Dr. Abel. “It helps to ask yourself who and what are your main responsibilities — the answer is you and your happiness.”
The fear that we’re letting people down is so draining, we need to boost our energy, says Dr. Abel, who suggests this relaxation technique: Close your eyes and picture the surfaces around you as sponges. Exhale, relax your muscles, and envision the sponges absorbing your worries. “Sprinkling your day with quick mindfulness exercises stops anxiety early before it spirals,” Dr. Abel says. Once you’re calm, you’ll be able to challenge your fears: Is it true you’re letting others down or do you simply need time for you? You’ll soon see just how much you do, and that prioritizing your needs is not a sin but a necessity.
Tap into true positivity.
When your best friend calls to tell you that her husband has just undergone successful emergency heart surgery to open a blocked artery, you’re relieved for her. But this health scare turns your focus to your own family, making you worry about everything they do. Health anxiety can feel overwhelming because it hits at the heart of what we value most.
Allay health fears with realistic optimism, urges Dr. Abel. If, for example, you’re apprehensive about a medical test, rather than lie to yourself that you’re not worried, try a more nuanced statement: “I have a good doctor and I have the support of my family.” Dr. Abel notes that “when you worry in a ‘positive direction’ by being optimistic and realistic, your anxiety abates much faster.”
You’re more resilient than you think: The key is to remind yourself that you can handle what’s ahead with strength and resolve.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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