Last week I noticed a very suspicious looking blemish on my cheek, and I started worrying. I was especially nervous because when my mother was my age, she developed skin cancer under her right eye. Then several years ago my sister Ann had an angry looking sore on the back of her leg that wouldn’t heal for months. Even though hers turned out to benign, the experience made for some anxious times. So it didn’t require much imagination on my part to convince myself that my blemish could require a big chunk to be cut out of my cheek, scaring me for a lifetime. Or worse.
Finally, after waking up in the middle of the night with worry on my mind, I called the dermatologist. Although he couldn’t see me for a week, I realized that I could continue to allow fear and worry to control my life for the following seven days, or I could do something else. But isn’t that choice something we all face every day in this thing called life? Fear and worry? Or peace and happiness? We decide.
Because such a clear example showed up in my life, I came up with the following seven ways I know that fear and worry keep us, actually hijack us, from living a peaceful and happy life. They are:
a. Makes us anxious about our future and for those we love.
b. Makes us suspicious of others, including loved ones as well as strangers.
c. Makes us age and grow older faster.
d. Can make us physically sick.
e. Destroys our innate joy
f. Makes the world feel like a scary place.
g. Keeps us from being our true self.
We know this! I’m not telling any one of you something you haven’t considered before, and yet most of us still do it. Even when we like to believe we don’t go there very often, it’s easy to see it happening if we listen to our stories and conversations.
But what about when fear and worry are really important, and necessary? Unfortunately, I don’t think fear or worry ever ends up helping. I’m convinced that when I’m anxious and fearful about something, I am much less in a position to do much about it. In fact, the brain’s response to fear is to shut down and run—not come up with solutions. As we all know, common reactions to fear and worry are to run away, stick our heads in the sand, or come out fighting.
So what can we do? Here are seven options I came up with to counteract the problem:
1) Remember that much of the time what we fear isn’t even real and/or never happens. As has been said: FEAR equals—False Evidence Appearing Real. Or as Mark Twain said, I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
The email program on Thom’s computer froze a couple of weeks ago and it hadn’t been backed up in a while. Thom does all his business on that computer and the content was pretty momentous. When he yelled, “Help!” I panicked—that’s because I’m the computer-tech person in our family (which is pretty darn scary in itself!) But I could see from one angle that an enormous amount of data was still on his computer—all I had to do was figure out how to access it. And I did. Sure it took a little time but panic didn’t help a bit. Staying calm and talking myself “down” was the best approach. It’s wise to remember that most of the stuff we worry about doesn’t ever happen.
2) Remember that what we focus on expands in our life. In other words, if you think scary thoughts all the time then your first response to just about everything is going to be more fear and worry. Our minds are very habitual, so whatever habit of thinking we routinely entertain brings us more and more every day. If we want to reverse the trend of thinking about worry and fear, then we have to spend as much or more time thinking thoughts of peace, happiness, and feeling confident that we can overcome our difficulties.
3) Face the fear and do it anyway. A woman named Susan Jeffers wrote a very popular book about this topic and the advice remains. Our ability to grow stronger in the face of fear is like a muscle that can either be developed or allowed to be wimpy and weak. Want to overcome fear? Then face your fears slowly and gradually build the muscle. You will grow more brave and confident as time goes by.
4) Rename fear and see it in a different light. When I turned 40 years old, Thom bought me something I said I’d always wanted to do—sky dive! But when faced with making the appointment for the tandem dive I balked. It’s one thing to think about, and another to do. I knew I was nervous about the experience, but I never, ever let my mind spiral out of control with fear and worry. With gift card in hand, I showed up for my appointment with a dozen members of my friends and family. I climbed into that airplane, soared to 10,000 feet and jumped. Was it scary? Damn right! Was it exhilarating and one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done? Hell yes!
5) Become a model of strength and resilience. When we strive to show it to our partners, children, and friends, then we show others and ourselves that we are much stronger than we usually claim. By deciding we will be a positive role model to others and not a victim of fear or worry, we can challenge ourselves to move past our fears and refuse to be enslaved by them.
6) Hang out with people who refuse to talk worry or fear at all. And yes, you know the people I’m talking about here! Just as science now proves that our physical weight is impacted by our friends, so too is our ability to handle fear and worry. Choose friends that encourage you to take reasonable chances and are there to support you when any experience seems overwhelming. Stay away from friends that say, “Oh you poor thing!” and find ones that say, “You will get past this!”
7) Distract yourself. I realize that this sometimes can look a bit like denial, but it often works on me when I’m unable to get my mind from ruminating on a worrisome topic. Distraction is particularly helpful when you have a time-period to get through and know that nothing can be resolved until it passes. For example, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see a dermatologist for seven days, so I kept myself busy with other projects while waiting. I refused to talk about it with anyone, and anytime my mind caught the spot in the mirror I would walk away and get busy with something else. Is it easy? No, but the alternative can lead to the seven points I made above that can hijack happiness.
Yesterday I went to see the doctor and surprise! He said the blemish on my cheek was just that—and nothing to worry about. Of course, I realize that sometimes the answer isn’t as positive and sometimes we are faced with much more dramatic information. But even then, nothing I could have done in the last week could have helped that diagnosis as much as refusing to let fear and worry rule my life.
Like I said in the beginning, we each have the choice of choosing fear and worry every single day. On the other hand, we also have the choice of choosing peace and happiness. I’m positive we all know which one is SMART.