The best way to prevent yourself from becoming paralyzed with worry, writes psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, is to simply make sure you never worry all by yourself. Hallowell argues in his new book, Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive, that when you feel real or imagined concerns piling on, share them with a friend, and there’s a better chance that aimless anxiety will morph into problem-solving. He believes that worrying alone is one of the major reasons that people can’t focus, both at work and elsewhere in their lives.
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It’s an intriguing idea, so Science of Us contacted Hallowell via email for some additional thoughts and anxiety-management tips.
What exactly is so bad about worrying alone? Can you explain a few reasons why it’s so detrimental?
Worrying alone does not have to be toxic, but it tends to become toxic because in isolation we lose perspective. We tend to globalize, catastrophize, when no one is there to act as a reality check. Our imaginations run wild. Indeed, Samuel Johnson, a prodigious worrier himself, called worry a “disease of the imagination.” When we worry alone we risk losing touch with reality, becoming paralyzed in worry, making bad decisions, and even getting sick, as toxic worry depresses immune function.
And can you explain some of the benefits of worrying with someone else?
When you worry with someone else, you usually end up problem solving, as you feel more empowered and less alone. A good analogy is if you stand in a big warehouse in the dark alone, you tend to feel afraid, even paranoid, but if you stand in that same warehouse with someone, you feel better.
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What I call the basic equation of worry is this: increased feelings of vulnerability coupled with diminished feelings of power and control leads to toxic worry. So anything you can do to reduce feelings of vulnerability and increase feelings of power and control will reduce toxic worry. Note that the external reality is irrelevant; it’s the internal feelings that count.
But how is worrying with another person different from venting about your problems? And/or how can you ensure that your co-worrying doesn’t morph into venting?
Doesn’t matter. Venting is good for the soul as well. Just don’t make it your life plan.
What does worrying with someone else look like in action? For instance, does this mean you simply describe the things you are worried about to a friend? Or is it best if the pair of you talks about something you’re both worried about?
Doesn’t matter if the other person is worried about the same matter or not. You just have to find someone you like and trust. My basic three-step method of worry control is as follows:
1. Never worry alone.
2. Get the facts. (Toxic worry is rooted in wrong information, lack of information, or both.)
3. Make a plan. Having a plan reduces feelings of vulnerability and increases feelings of control.
And if the plan you make with your worrying partner does not work, then revise it. Life is all about revising plans.
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