Worry and stress: how to avoid sorry distress

Part 2 - coping with worries


The bars of my cage are habit and fear.               

Tad Boniecki


This two-part article is a general piece on how to solve problems and diminish stress. This second part deals with the emotional aspects. Again, there are a lot of suggestions here, so just pick out one or two that could be helpful to you right now - don't worry about the others.


Take control of stress

Stress is an inner feeling of compulsion, threat, pressure, burden or anxiety. This feeling is something that you generate inside yourself, just like anger or sadness. The stress of running late or the worry about an unpleasant future event is generated by you in your mind. Running late, even for something highly important, is not in itself stressful. Thus it is possible to sit back in the bus and say to yourself, "I hope I get there in time but in any case worrying about it is useless and only upsets me for no reason." Your stress is entirely your responsibility because it is an internal self-generated experience. No-one else can stress you. They may try to, but it is always your choice whether to accept stress or not. So you need to assume responsibility for your own stress.


Likewise with the future event we fear or would like to avoid. Because the event itself lies in the future, it does not exist and so cannot have any effect on things in the present. Only thoughts about it can make it appear as though the future event is affecting things now. Thoughts about it cause our stress. The essential point is that whatever happens to us, any feelings of stress that we feel are our internal response to the external events.


On the other hand, a certain level of stress may actually be needed to motivate us to perform well. This is clear in sports and games, where intense involvement helps us to play better and enjoy the activity more. This kind of stress is healthy. Deadline energy and exam anxiety can work wonders. Find out what your optimum stress level is and use it to your advantage. Too much stress paralyses us, too little sedates us, so find the middle path.


Use meditation, exercise, yoga, breathing exercises and relaxation (for which you can buy spoken word CDs) as an antidote to stress. A hot bath or an engrossing book are two other well-tested remedies. Soothing music helps too. Sleep is tremendously important. If sleep is a problem then learn how to fall asleep using natural methods.



There are two opposite ways to improve the performance of a task. The first is to try harder. The second is to relax and stop trying so hard. As in, "Don't just do something, stand there." Sometimes standing still is the best option, as it allows you time to find the most appropriate response. It also helps prevent foot-in-mouth disease. A related problem-solving strategy is to sleep on it. Pause, slow down, reflect on your response. Sometimes the faster you run the less you move. Don't allow people or events to pressure you into hasty action. Don't be so focused on the product of your efforts that you fail to enjoy the process.


Practise saying 'no'

It is important to say "no" to people when doing what they ask, or doing it immediately, is not in our best interests. If we habitually give in to other people's agendas or expectations then we cannot expect to meet our own needs. As for worrying about what they think, this is usually of little consequence because in most cases they won't think much about us. Even if they did - so what? Then there is, "What will I tell them?" or "How can I say no?" Just be honest and politely let them know that you have other priorities or commitments and that you will not do what they ask. My favourite answer is, "Not now." Avoid guilt trips!


Avoid saying "I must"

The only thing you must do is die. Everything else is optional. Of course, there are things that you don't feel like doing but which are important to do. However, don't get into the mode of thinking that you "have to" do or "ought to" do even these things. Life is about alternatives, and while the alternative to doing an important thing may be extremely undesirable, that is still not the same thing as the action being compulsory. The more you operate with a mind-set of "I must do x, y and z" the more you will feel like an automaton without free will or pleasure, and the less effective you will be.


Don't believe you are lazy

Laziness is a faulty concept. No-one is lazy when they really want to do something - they just go ahead and do it. The problem we call "laziness" arises when we have conflicting feelings about something or are simply not motivated to do it. Typically, we think we "should" do it but nothing is further from our desires. This often leads to procrastination.


Schedule for pleasure and achievement

If you are not sure how to make a schedule for yourself then think of the twin goals of pleasure and achievement. Pick a task or two that will give you one or the other (ideally both). Keep track of how much pleasure and satisfaction each task gives you and adjust your future schedules accordingly. If there are so many things to do that you feel overwhelmed then make a list and plan when to do the various items.


Don't cheat yourself

It is easy to fall into the trap of pretending you are doing something useful when in fact you are distracting yourself with a peripheral or irrelevant activity, such as reading old magazines when you are supposedly clearing out the garage. Or surfing the Net while pretending you are doing research. However, don't punish yourself for doing such displacement activities, which are yet another form of procrastination. Just acknowledge it when you are not doing what you set out to do. Resume without fuss.


Trust yourself

Trust yourself to do the appropriate thing - you will know what it is. So long as you do the appropriate thing at the time, this is the most you can do to help yourself.


Give yourself the same advice you would give a friend - and then follow it!


Tolerate uncertainty

An important part of being effective is the ability to tolerate uncertainty, ie not knowing what the results of our actions will be. Uncertainty is one of the few stable facts of life and it is up to us to cope with it as best we can. Otherwise it may paralyse us with indecision. It is really important to be able to begin projects whose outcome we cannot foresee.


Be in the moment

People talk so much about being in the moment that it is becoming a cliche. Yet the moment is all there ever is; it is the sole reality. All else is memory (the past) or imagination (the future). So the recipe for enlightenment, for happiness, and for effective living is to be in the moment. This is something that most human beings find exceedingly hard to do. Certainly, I am rarely in the moment, though I have been aware of this issue for decades. (You teach what you most need to learn.) Not living in the present means a life of waiting. As Russell Hoban observed, "There is no such thing as an in-between time." This is it.


It is one of the major paradoxes of life that while, on the one hand, the moment is all there is, and all thought of the future is an escape from this reality, on the other hand, human life is unavoidably based on living in the future. We need to make plans, follow schedules, prepare for what is to come, and execute projects step by step. This is labouring the obvious, yet no-one seems to be able to reconcile these two opposing polarities.


The best one can hope for is to achieve a reasonable working balance, a trade-off between spontaneity and planning. Here is the rub: what is excessive thinking or planning and what is healthy and even necessary? You need to find a balance that works for you.


Distinguish between worry and problem-solving

There is a difference between worry and problem solving, but where does one finish and the other begin? There is no real dividing line. I may begin by indulging in futile, circular worrying that does nothing but upset me, but then at a certain point I may get an idea that is useful. I may not have reached that idea if I had not started to worry. On the other hand, worry often (for me anyway) remains just worry, without reaching the level of useful problem solving, especially in matters which are out of my control.


The usual remedy for this is to say, "We need to work on the problems we can affect, not worry about the ones we cannot, plus we need the wisdom to tell the difference." The real problem is that there is no dividing line between what I can change and what I cannot, especially when you take into account that each problem has two interrelated parts - the problem itself and my reaction to it. That second part can always be worked on.


Make sure you set limits on the amount of time you spend worrying.


Cope with tormenting thoughts

Returning repeatedly to unpleasant thoughts is like continually probing a sore tooth or scratching a sore. The only remedy is to stop. To do so, distract yourself with a productive activity, preferably something physical, talk to a friend, or do something that is involving and fun, or just go for a walk. Avoid thinking about problems at night. Thoughts come and go and we cannot choose what enters our minds, but it is up to us which ones we foster and cultivate. Do not cultivate noxious weeds. On the other hand, putting disturbing thoughts down on paper may purge them. Writing them down makes room for new, more positive ones.


If you are obsessively worrying about something then try this checklist: Be definite. What exactly are you worried about? Be rational. Is it certain, probable or only possible, ie unlikely? Be specific. What evidence do you have that this fear is justified? Be wise. How important is it? Be practical. What shall you do about it?

Here is a further checklist to use when negative thoughts trouble you. What evidence do I have for this thought? Is there any alternative way of looking at the situation? Am I assuming that my way of seeing it is the only one possible? Am I mistaking a feeling for a fact? Am I over-estimating the likelihood of something that is quite improbable? Am I jumping to conclusions? Am I forgetting relevant facts or focusing on irrelevant ones? Am I exaggerating the importance of the problem or worry? Am I assuming responsibility for something I am not and should not be responsible for? Am I assuming that I have an effect on things that are outside my control? What can I realistically do about this issue? How would someone else think about the situation? Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms? Am I paying attention to only the black side of things? Am I concentrating on my weakness and forgetting my strengths? Does it really matter?


Employ the worst case analysis

Use the worst case scenario technique. If you are worrying about something then think of the worst possible outcome, but without straying into fantasy land. The idea is to employ realistic thinking. What will actually happen if you lose the job or miss the plane? The answer is, another job, another plane. If you are worried about actual disasters then do a reality check - how likely is it that the bad thing you fear might happen? How often has it happened in the past?


Cope with negative emotions (Source: GROW Blue Book)

You can do whatever ordinary people do and avoid whatever ordinary people avoid. Feelings are not fact, so you need to go by what you know and not how you feel. You can compel your limbs and muscles to act rightly in spite of your feelings.


Sometimes I find that when the time comes to do the thing that I had eagerly planned for beforehand I don't feel like doing it. Yet I persevere regardless and am nearly always glad that I did so. This seems to be a common human experience. To live skillfully we need to do things we don't feel like doing.


Your feelings can be stirred as much by imagined as by real causes. Between a feeling and a fact there is always a thought; and the more disturbed you are the less your feelings are related to reality. The remedy is to go by what you know, not by how you feel. Feelings are a sort of internal weather. You just have to go on living through its changes as you do with the weather outside. The bad weather can't last. Your feelings will get better as your habits of thinking and acting get better.


If you are finding it hard to cope there is no shame in receiving counselling from a counsellor or psychologist.


Deal with anxiety and fear

Anxiety is a natural part of the human condition and is a very close relative of excitement. One can easily transform into the other. Fear is almost always experienced before the fact, almost never at the time. It is always fear of the future, never of what is actually now in the present. It is not possible to fear anything in the present because the present already is, and therefore nothing worse can happen in it. A present situation might cause us anguish or pain, but not fear. What we fear is that the present situation will become worse in the future.


The more we centre ourselves in the present moment the more we diminish our fears and anxieties. The remedy is to be here now, not in some fearful future time that does not even exist.


I put this into practice when I was walking up a glaciated mountain in the Alps, alone and without an ice axe (this is not recommended). There was a fatal-looking 45 degree slope on each side of the narrow summit ridge. I applied the rule, "Don't look up, don't look down. Just find a safe place to put the next step." This was truly 'being in the moment' and indeed it worked well for me. There is no space for fear when you are focused on nothing except exactly where to put down your foot.


It is also important to realise that feeling a fear is usually a far more unpleasant experience than what actually happens, even if exactly what we feared comes to pass. In my own experience, it has hardly ever happened that an event I feared turned out to be worse than my experience of fearing it beforehand. While we are nearly always able to cope with the present, fear - our negative expectations about the future - is often far more traumatic.


Fear feeds on uncertainty and generality. The more precise you are about the source of your fear the more you can address it. Fear of the unknown is hardest to handle. So spell it out, make specific what it is that you actually fear and then look at it rationally.


Deflate frustration and upsets

If you feel frustrated or upset, this is because your image of how people, you, or things are does not match the reality. The image is at fault and you need to adjust it to match reality.


Don't go down the fear tunnel

No news is not bad news: so don't assume that anything bad has happened without evidence. If your daughter is late from school but you have not heard that something has happened then do not assume that it has. It is very likely that there is a harmless explanation. Give yourself a deadline for when to start worrying.


Cope with a panic attack

If your body is gripped by fear, perhaps without any specific cause, and you have symptoms such as racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, inability to stay still and extreme distress then this is probably just a harmless panic attack. To get over it, slow down your breathing, breathe deeply but slowly using the diaphragm, not just your chest. If you employ this simple technique the attack will pass within minutes. 


Accept what you cannot change...

Part of gaining maturity is learning to accept limitations. It is my observation that life is a gradual process of lowering one's expectations. Teenagers start out thinking that everything is possible, but as they move into their forties they increasingly realise that not all things are possible for any one individual. Work on acceptance of things as they are and of likely future outcomes. Ask yourself, "Is this moment OK?" You will almost certainly find that the answer is "yes".


...but work at self-change

Don't say, "This is how I am and I cannot change." Self-change is hard but staying the same is worse. "Unless you change direction you will probably end up where you are headed". (Confucius) The only thing that is really within our control is our attitude to what happens to us. Don't be like a leaf in the wind of your emotions.


All of us like to operate within our personal "comfort zone". Personal growth depends on extending this zone to include what is at first difficult or uncomfortable. This entails doing things that we do not include among our strengths or abilities, eg "I'm no good with my hands". Don't just deal from your strong suit.


Don't be a clever stupid

Although even the smartest dog is not made stupid by intelligence, many humans suffer exactly this fate. We all know of examples of extremely intelligent people who lack basic common sense. Such people typically make a mess of their private lives or invest all their energy into something that's not even remotely important. It is easy to get carried away by clever ideas that have not received sufficient reality checking. Especially for a mind that operates at a thousand miles per minute.


Learn from the experience of others

Experience is a great teacher, but it need not be your own experience. For instance, I have noticed that nearly all first-time parents grossly under-estimate the trials and difficulties of caring after babies, yet their friends had the same experience before them. So make sure you know what you are signing up for and don't repeat the mistakes of other people (such as taking up smoking). Make your own.



Misplaced importance caused by egocentric feelings is at the heart of all sick thinking. Therefore in learning to think rationally the keynote is to decentralise from yourself and strive to be objective. Do not over-react and distort something just because it is happening to you. Give yourself the same practical advice you would give to someone else in the same situation. Do not treat your own case as being exceptional. (Source: GROW Blue Book)


Minimise thinking about yourself

It is not worth spending much time on considering whether you are a good person, whether you are clever, useful or whatever. By all means judge and reflect on your actions, but avoid judging yourself. (Eg "I behaved myself but could have paid more attention in life-class.") Whether they are positive or negative, your self-judgements are mainly a waste of psychic energy that can be put to better use.


Accept criticism with equanimity

It is a normal reaction to react defensively when someone criticises us. Normal but not healthy. You can control your sensitivity to criticism and diminish your reactivity. When someone criticises you, ask them what they base their opinion on and listen. Take it in without going into an automatic defensive response. You do not need to accept what they say, but it may be something valuable.


Gain perspective

Nothing is vitally important just because it is happening to you. Put things in perspective - will this matter in ten year's time? Does anyone really care about it? How bad would it really be if you were to fail, or simply avoided the issue concerned? Don't allow minor but annoying problems to distract you from the bigger picture. On the other hand, if the issue really is important then give it high priority and don't allow other minor but annoying problems to impede your progress.


Use humour

Humour is not only the healthiest, most pleasant and safest of all defence mechanisms. It can actually get you out of some difficult situations, such as times when you cannot find anything appropriate (and serious) to say. It can also act as a doorway to creative problem solving. Thus you might say, "What about if..." where the thought is intentionally ridiculous, but it might lead to something else that is useful.


We live in a crazy, unfair and irrational world. Laughing at it is one of the few successful coping strategies. Humour helps to keep things in perspective and lightens even the toughest situations. After the terrible Canberra bushfires a man met a friend in front of his burnt-out house. He said, "I'd offer you tea but I've run out of milk."


Engage in positive self-talk

How you talk to yourself in the privacy of your own mind is important. Beware of the inner critic or saboteur. This is a negative inner voice that makes adverse comments on whatever we do. It will always be there no matter what, but it is what we do with the things it says to us that matters. We do not need to accept what this voice says, though occasionally it may offer useful advice, eg "Don't drive now because you have drunk too much". The key is to put the negative self-comments in perspective, not to give them undue power. Thoughts are just thoughts. They are not facts but interpretations, and are often emotionally based.


You may be overwhelmed by a sense of your own insignificance, but this is not a useful posture for getting things done, nor for helping yourself feel better. How to be positive? It has a lot to do with what we focus on. Although there are various positives to dwell on, our minds have a tendency to focus on what is not right. It is up to us to work on minimising this tendency. For instance, almost every one of us has possessions each of which is worth more than ten million dollars. I mean eyes, arms, legs and a mind. Instead, we often dwell on some minor ache or discomfort in a stomach or leg. Make a list of all the things you have to be grateful for and keep a daily positive diary that lists everything good that happens to you.


Don't confuse being positive with being optimistic. There is an essential difference. An optimist has unrealistically positive expectations, and these will usually be frustrated. A positive mental attitude, by contrast, is best explained in terms of seeing the half glass as half full, ie dwelling on what is to our liking, rather than on what isn't. It means making the most of what life provides, rather than focusing on what is missing. Even a broken leg has its positive side, eg you can catch up on your reading and get out of vacuum cleaning. The optimist may think, "It will be OK in a week's time." The positive person will think, "I will enjoy today despite the broken leg." Being positive is incredibly important because if you can more or less gladly accept all that happens to you, how will you ever manage to be miserable? Or to put it in another way, if you trust that life always brings you what you need (not to be confused with what you want), then you are most likely a happy person.


Realise a dream
Dreams keep us hopeful and alive. They need not be grandiose or spectacular. The key element is that it be something you have really wanted to do but did not try. It may be a ride in a hot air balloon, skiing, going overseas, taking up oil painting, buying a good camera or simply going to some special place for the weekend.


Find strength in adversity

Lance Armstrong is the seven-time winner of the Tour de France, which is regarded as the toughest sporting event in the world. Before this he came very close to dying of cancer. In his deeply inspiring and unputdownable book, "It's not about the Bike", he reports that a fellow cancer patient wrote to him, "You don't know it yet, but we are the lucky ones." Armstrong later wrote, "If you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, husband, son, and a father." The experience of enduring the pain of his cancer allowed Armstrong to cope with the pain of racing.


Try on radical responsibility

The orientation of seeing every event in a positive light can be taken a step further. It is helpful to adopt the notion of radical responsibility, according to which it is you who has created or chosen to experience every event of your life, including your illnesses, problems and accidents. So when something untoward occurs, instead of blaming God or bad luck, ask yourself, "Why did I choose to have this experience? How can I grow from this setback?" This attitude transforms each mishap or problem into a challenge. Every difficulty can be seen as an opportunity for growth. Such an attitude is an excellent antidote to the victim mentality ("Why me?") You need not believe it, but try it on - it is empowering. Your attitude to your life experiences is the most powerful tool at your disposal. Use it to your benefit.


Go beyond the winning/losing mindset

Life is not about winning and losing. Ultimately, it is not even about how well you play the game. What is it about then? For what it's worth, here is my personal belief.


I believe love is the key. I mean love in the broadest sense - not just the love for one person, but loving what you do on a daily basis, loving yourself, loving where you are, loving the people you share your life with.


Another way to say the same thing is that life is meaningful if you have something - hopefully many things - to feel enthusiastic about. It may be spending time with your favourite person, playing with your kids, or with your dog, or your daily work, or a project, sport or hobby. Since each person is unique and different, there is no recipe for what will give meaning to every person. I am enthusiastic about things that are of little interest to other people, and vice versa.


Yet another way to say it is that we feel most alive when we are in the moment, also referred to as "being in flow", ie so caught up in what we are experiencing that we do not think about it and temporarily lose the sense of self.


So I would say that it is about finding and exploring what you most love to do. It is important to connect, be it with other people, animals, nature or even ideas. It is about being active and productive, whether with your hands, your mind, or in relating to other people.


Tad Boniecki

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