Everybody worries, some of us more than others. I've been a worrier all of my life. In fact, I come from a long line of worriers. It's quite normal to worry really and it can even serve a purpose. Concern about the consequences of our actions or future events can motivate us to act responsibly and to plan. There's nothing wrong with that, is there? Nope, there isn't...unless you take it too far.
For some of us, worry becomes an obsession. We practice it with such skill and frequency that we elevate it to an art form. Spending so much of our time and energy on worry unfortunately doesn't allow time for much else. This type of chronic, obsessive worry is often referred to as rumination; dwelling and mulling over past errors and fretting over the possibility of more to come. Rumination can frazzle our nerves, test the patience of our loved ones and make us, and everyone around us, miserable.
In Martin Seligman's book, "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life," he describes how rumination occurs when we dwell on, mull over and relive negative events. In essence, we are worrying endlessly about things we can do nothing to change. In fact, claims Seligman, women have a much greater tendency toward rumination than do men. Men tend to act (kick the dog, punch a hole in the wall or shoot some hoops to distract themselves) while women tend to think (and brood and obsess and question why). A woman's tendency to ruminate also adds to the likelihood that she will develop depression. Women are, in fact, twice as likely to suffer from depression as are men.
What makes a person become a ruminator? There are probably a myriad of causes including the behavior modeled by our parents, the number and frequency of failures we've experienced and others. There is some research being done at Yale University that suggests that it may even be an inherited tendency. When I look at my own family tree, I would be inclined to agree. So, to put it simply, we don't know exactly what causes some of us to ruminate, but we know that it is bad for us. So can we change this? And if so, how do we go about it? I'm glad that you asked.
Changing this type of behavior is never easy, but there are things that you can do. The first step is to recognize that you have the tendency to ruminate and to decide to do something about it. That accomplished, you need to do a little spying on yourself and actually catch yourself in the act. In "The Power of Optimism," Alan McGinnis suggest catching yourself thinking negative thoughts and taking a moment to evaluate them. Are they productive? Are your perceptions realistic or are you exaggerating? What evidence is there to back up your negative thoughts? For example, does your recent failure to please your boss with progress on a particular project mean that you have screwed up big time, that you always screw up, that you'll never be able to fix this, that you are a complete and utter failure? A little critical analysis will usually lay waste to these types of catastrophic conclusions.
But these thoughts have a way of intruding anyway. To really get rid of them you have to distract yourself and replace these thoughts with more positive ones or with some engaging activity. You might want to put off thinking about the negative stuff running through your mind until you get home, or write it down in a notebook so you can dwell on it later. Then you'll need to make use of a prepared mental list of distracting activities or positive thoughts that you can whip out in an emergency. Take time to find an inspirational quote that you can recite to yourself or a phrase such as "I'm not perfect and I don't have to be" or "This too shall pass" or whatever floats your boat. You can sing an uplifting or favorite song to yourself or suddenly find the button on your shirt so fascinating that you are distracted by examining it in detail. Sounds ridiculous but these things can work and sometimes make you laugh at yourself in the process.
Loretta LaRoche wrote a wonderful little book called "Relax - You May Only Have a Few Minutes Left: Using the Power of Humor to Overcome Stress in Your Life and Work." In it, she says that laughter reduces blood pressure, relieves muscle tension, encourages deeper breathing and boosts your immune system. She also has some great ideas for injecting humor into not-so-amusing situations. So the next time your driving yourself crazy with worry, try distracting yourself with something goofy. Even force yourself to make a silly face or put a huge ridiculous grin on your face (although you shouldn't do this in the middle of the discussion with your boss). See how it goes; you just might break that negative thought pattern and give yourself a laugh in the process. Let me know if it works or if you have any other worry-busting ideas