At the 1989 Grammy Awards ceremony, the song of the year designation was bestowed upon Bobby McFerrin for his song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Twenty years later, the background music for one of the most popular television commercials on the air was a song called “Trouble,” by Ray LaMontagne – the lyrics of which include the following: “Worry – worry, worry, worry, worry – worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.” (You know the commercial. It was for Traveler’s Insurance, and it featured a dog attempting to figure out how to safeguard his prized rawhide bone.)
Call it a sign of the times. If it is possible to find a social barometer based upon what resonated with people two decades ago, as compared to what does now, I think it is safe to assume that we live in a worried society. If you look at the state of the economy and the housing market, not to mention what appears to be an increase in natural disasters around the world, it is easy to see why people might be more worried than they were in the late 1980s.
As attorneys, you could be more susceptible to worry than most, given that not only do you have your own issues to consider, you take on the problems of others as a means of earning your livelihood. You worry for a living. You have been trained to identify the possible pitfalls in any given situation. Before I went to law school, I used to be able to look at construction sites or highway repair crews without a second thought. Now I see nothing but potential injuries and accidents waiting to happen.
In and of itself, worry is not necessarily a bad thing. If a small amount of worry is used as the impetus to make sure that we stay prepared and on top of things, then it serves as a good motivator. It is when worry becomes chronic that problems can arise. Sometimes, and I am definitely guilty of this, people think that if they do enough worrying, they can keep something terrible from happening – as though worry creates a force field of protection against bad stuff. Well, I can tell you from experience, that doesn’t work. Bad stuff happens anyway. And as hard as it may be to believe – if the bad thing doesn’t happen, it isn’t because you spent all night worrying about it. Really.
What excessive worry can do, however, is make you sick. Chronic worry can cause an elevation in stress hormones, such as cortisol. This can, in turn, raise your blood sugar and triglyceride levels. Over the long haul, chronic worry can lead to symptoms of anxiety, including rapid heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, insomnia, irritability and muscle tension, among others. Eventually, it can set the stage for even more serious health problems.
For many, many people, worry can become a habit. That habit can lead to the litany of problems listed above. The good news is – you can break that habit. If worry is truly impeding your ability to live a happy and productive life, try visiting a counselor, therapist, or spiritual advisor. Sometimes you might need professional help to kick the worry habit.
If you choose to go it alone, consider these three effective methods to use to counteract the worry cycle. The first is to try the “worry time” method. To do this, set aside a half hour during the day and write down everything that is worrying you. Spend 30 straight minutes focusing only on your worries. Think about the worries and all of the potential negative outcomes and/or possible solutions related to them. Wallow in it. At the end of 30 minutes, stop. That’s all the time you are going to give to your worries for the day. If a worry creeps into your consciousness, push the thought away. Your worry time for the day is over. Keep it over. Don’t go back to it until your 30-minute allotted time the following day.
The second method is a good one to use if your worry results in insomnia. Before going to bed, write down everything that is worrying you and place the list on your bedside stand or somewhere near the bed. Your worries are all there. They will be safe all night. You don’t have to risk forgetting them overnight, because they will be waiting patiently at your side, ready to greet you in the morning. This should help you to get a more restful sleep. Getting more rest is useful in breaking the worry cycle, as many times worry is born of exhaustion. (You can even use your nighttime worry list as the basis for your 30-minute worryfest the next day – for complete worry efficiency! Believe me, it’s been done.)
The third method (which is helpful used in conjunction with the other two) is the exercise method. Walking, running, or other aerobic workouts are good for this method because exercise helps to dissipate negative energy created by worry. (It also can elicit an endorphin rush, which helps mental attitude as well!) For the first 15 minutes of your walk or run, allow yourself to worry about whatever is plaguing you that day. Then, for the next 15 minutes, put the “worry thoughts” out of your mind. Think about something fun, something good that happened during the day, or something you are looking forward to doing in the future. Envision placing the worry thoughts in a box and setting them aside for the rest of your run. The end of your run or walk is purely for positive thoughts.
While it may not be as simple as just saying “don’t worry, be happy,” if you try these methods, you can be on the road to banishing worry from your life.•
Jonna Kane MacDougall, an Indianapolis attorney, is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis and a former law school career services director. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-370-4361 or via email at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.