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Western Reserve Psychological Associates, Inc.Empowering change for over 40 years
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"What if"? So much misery is caused by those two words. Especially now, with so much uncertainty in the world, it is easy to become consumed with worries and alarms.

May people ask us "So, has the economic crisis increased your business"? Actually, it hasn't. Some people are too afraid to spend any money (even $20 for a co-pay) and others lose their insurance when they lose their job. But mainly, people keep their "what if'" and "if only's" at home, where they keep them to themselves or inflict them on the family. It doesn't help much that other people have the same problems; actually, that just makes it scarier. Anxiety is one of the most infectious emotions.

Psychologists are not immune to anxiety, either. But for the record, here are some things we have learned about managing it so worry doesn't run your life:

  1. Stay away from other people who are talking about "what if". You don't need broadcasting from the anxiety radio network.
  2. Give your mind some time just to worry. You are going to do it anyway and you don't want to be doing it at two a.m. So actually schedule some time each day to sit down with a pad and paper and give your mind over to your worries. Actually write them down. That way you don't have your brains alarm system going off at unexpected times with helpful little reminding (e.g. "Your savings is already down 50%" or "You should have had that little mole looked at before I lost my health insurance", or "You'll have to lay off three more people if things don't pick up).
  3. Find anxiety clusters and ask yourself, "How likely is this to really happen"? If you don't really know the answer, find someone who might.
  4. From your worry list, pick the things you can do something about right now and do it. Procrastination really fuels anxiety.
  5. Make a "prediction record". Column 1 is for the date you make your negative thought/prediction. Column 2 is the thought itself. Column 3 is for the outcome in 1 month. Column 4 is for later updates. Include everything from "It will probably rain on graduation day" to "The government of Pakistan is going to jail". See how many of these worries actually come to pass. We usually remember our few accurate predictions and forget all the catastrophes that did not happen.
  6. For really persistent worries, follow your catastrophe spiral down to it's end. e.g.
    • I'm going to get laid-off.
    • We'll lose the house.
    • The kids will hate me.
    • Everyone will know and I'll be mortified.

    Note how this particular downward spiral goes from a possible actual event to a worst outcome to what others will think about it. Many worries are made worse by undeserved guilt and shame.

    If you find this technique just scares you more, there is a helpful workbook: Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry (New York: Oxford University Press) 2006.

  7. Focus on this moment.
  8. Exercise. Feeling physically fit helps emotional resilience.
  9. Get a reality check from a wise friend.
  10. If you are really stuck and making yourself miserable, see a psychologist!
  11. Bonnie L. Fraser, Ph.D.
    Clinical Psychologist

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