Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

Wallop Worry and Anxiety

President Bush has warned, the clock’s ticking.

As I write this, the threat of war seems imminent. (Actually, I heard a newscaster this morning say that the threat of war seems intimate…and I guess it does.) It’s a scary time. How long will the seemingly inevitable war last, and what will the human and financial cost be? Will there be retaliation on our soil? What will the long-term impact be? Is our President making the right decision? What weapons are out there that we may not even know about?

If we let ourselves, we could spend our days in worry. We must not. To do so would take a self-inflicted toll on our own quality life at a level most of us will never experience at the hand of a terrorist or dictator.

The truth is, there are always things “out there” that can threaten our personal and work worlds. The question is, how do we deal with those things on a day-to-day basis, confidently and securely? Keep an ample supply of these three strategies in your emotional emergency (and everyday) tool kit.

1. Gain Control By Giving Up Control

One of our biggest challenges is the fear of the unknown. I’m convinced this is the major element in our resistance to change of all kinds. We want to maintain control (actually the illusion of control), and the unpredictability of the unknown creates a churning tummy.

Control is a good trait…up to a point. For instance, in managing our lives we need to keep a sense of purpose, a focus on what’s most important, and the conscious management of our own tempting, unhealthy impulses.

However, an obsession with control creates a storm of anxiety in the midst of circumstances beyond our control. That fear often leads us to unwise actions chosen in a futile attempt to keep under wraps things or people that have a mind of their own. (Ever try to change someone? My point exactly.)

Truth is, control, as most people define it, is a grandiose illusion. In uncertain times (what times aren’t?) we must be able to distinguish what we can control and what we can’t…and spend our time and energy on what we CAN do. That way, we gain control of ourselves, and we confidently experience our lives a series of (uncontrollable) challenges that call for (controllable) learning and growth.

The often-quoted “Serenity Prayer” sums it up nicely: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

2. Question Your Perceptions

Imagine for a moment that you are going for a walk down a beautiful pathway. As you walk along, you experience the rustle of the leaves in the wind. You step on a stick that has fallen from the tree, and you reach down and throw it off the path. A squirrel runs across your path, and you are amused at his antics. Wonderful, relaxing day.

Now, let’s rewind and make one small change in that scene. Suppose that just before you left for your walk, I told you that we had killed three rattlesnakes along that pathway yesterday. Now, you’re walking along that same path (if you didn’t avoid the whole scene and stay home). The leaves rustle, you step on that stick, the squirrel startles you by darting across. What are your reactions?

Same objective facts…but you jump, your respiration changes, your heart pounds. Your perceptions and reactions have changed. Why? You are now perceiving through a filter of fear, distorting your understanding of harmless events.

This happens all the time. Usually the imagined culprits aren’t rattlesnakes. Instead, they are work worries about layoffs, that look on the boss’s face, or the sneaking suspicion that a co-worker is trying to stab you in the back.

In your personal life, the “rattlesnakes” may be things like worries about your health. Last weekend my back went out (but I never do!). Flat of my back, I fought the tendency to fantasize and catastrophize. (It’s getting better, thank you, God.) Maybe you’re wondering what’s going on with your teenager whose attitude and friends have changed for the worse; fearing that the Market will continue to gobble your life savings; or experiencing the growing gnawing that your Prince or Princess Charming, isn’t.

Remember this principle: You perceive in the direction of your fears!

When it comes to fear, seeing is not believing. It’s the other way around. Believing is seeing. When you are anxious, you take everything that happens as evidence that your worst fears are true.

When you find yourself in a time of anxiety, question your perceptions. Realize that you will have a tendency to overreact and to misunderstand. Ask yourself, “Is there another way to interpret this?” Seek more facts before you jump to the conclusion that, as Job in the Bible said, “That which I greatly feared has come upon me!”

3. Act Despite Anxiety

When you’re feeling anxious, your reaction may be to try to avoid situations that make the anxiety worse. That’s normal, right?

While it may be “normal” in that most people do it, it’s not helpful. Studies show that the longer you stay away from a feared situation, the greater the fear and the more difficult to overcome it.

The cure for fear is action. It would certainly be more convenient if you could wait until you felt completely confident to act. However, it doesn’t work that way.

You don’t feel better, then act.

You must act in order to feel better!

Create a stepwise plan for confronting your fears, first making a list of situations that would cause you anxiety. Then arrange those in ascending order, from mildly anxiety-producing to overwhelming. Tackle that list a step at a time. Practice doing the first one, the one that makes you nervous, but doesn’t terrify you. You’ll find after a few practice sessions that you can do it with little discomfort. Then tackle the second item.

(Remember the “Baby Steps” concept from that delightful movie, “What About Bob?”. It works!)

I’m challenging you to show courage and bravery.

“Me, courageous? Are you kidding?” you may be asking. “You don’t know how I secretly worry. I’m about the least brave person you’ll meet.”

Here’s the good news.

By definition, courage is NOT the absence of fear. It’s a willingness to act DESPITE your fear. No fear, no courage.

Listen to the words of Og Mandino in his all-time bestselling classic, “The Greatest Salesman in the World”:

“My dreams are worthless, my plans are dust, my goals are impossible. All are of no value unless they are followed by action.

“I will act now.

“Never has there been a map, however carefully executed to detail and scale, which carried its owner over even one inch of ground. Never has there been a parchment of law, however fair, which prevented one crime. Never has there been a scroll, even such as the one I hold, which earned so much as a penny or produced a single word of acclamation. Action, alone, is the tinder which ignites the map, the parchment, this scroll, my dreams, my plans, my goals, into a living force. Action is the food and drink which will nourish my success.

“I will act now.

“My procrastination which has held me back was born of fear, and now I recognize this secret mined from the depths of all courageous hearts. Now I know that to conquer fear, I must always act without hesitation and the flutters in my heart will vanish. Now I know that action reduces the lion of terror to an ant of equanimity.

I will act now.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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