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Turning Anxiety into Security

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Retraining the Worry Impulse
Chronic worrying is a form of anxiety. It can become an almost automatic response, but the good news is you can retrain it. It just takes practice. Here are some of the best ways we know to change worried thoughts.

See the safety in the world. Try to make yourself pay attention to all the reasons why you should feel safe, secure, and confident. You could make a mental list of the resources within you (intelligence, character, determination, good-heartedness) or in your environment (strong marriage, savings, friends, etc.). Notice how things usually work out all right; remind yourself that people who have been there for you in the past are likely to be there for you in the future, too.

Be realistic. Try to think through whatever it is that you are worried about in a rational way. Ask yourself. What's the chance of this actually happening?

Take action. Occasionally, worrying is just a disguised way to avoid acting. One mother was rueful as she admitted to Rick: I think I'm obsessing about the different ways to get Jamie to sleep through the night partly because I'm afraid to just pick one. And sometimes we believe in a corner of the mind that worrying itself will ward off threats: If I relax about the baby, that's when something awful will happen.

But it's only real action that will solve the tangible problems that are making you anxious. Perhaps talk through your concerns with your partner or a friend, and make a plan for what you'll actually do. Being active rather than passive will probably help you feel better.

Cultivate an attitude of acceptance. The painful truth is that many of the forces that will shape our precious children's lives are out of our hands, whether it's the intellectual potential or temperament they were born with, the vulnerabilities in their bodies, or the accumulated effects of thousands of interactions with other children. There's peace in surrendering to this fact.

Don't overreact to your body. The brain draws conclusions about the world in part by reading the body's signals; in a sense, it reasons that "the world is scary because my body is nervous" rather than "my body is nervous because the world is scary." This kind of thinking helped keep our ancestors alive in the wild, but today it's like looking for road hazards by staring at the speedometer.

It's especially important for a mother to watch out for this tendency, since depletion and stress make your body more reactive and "jumpy." Notice any inclination in yourself to be preoccupied with your body or hypersensitive to its sensations; if you find one, try to put in a correction factor in the other direction, such as I know I have a nervous stomach, so I need to remember that I should not assume that Ivy is really sick just because I feel queasy when I hear her coughing.

Budget worry. Maybe it's reasonable to have the same thought ten times, but more than that has got to be overkill. Instead, make an appointment with yourself to worry. It could be an hour from now. If an alarming thought arises before then, tell yourself that you'll be open for business in a while, but right now the person who staffs the worry window is on her break. Or pick a specific period, say for twenty minutes each morning, when you will worry about a particular issue. Keep to that schedule and try to worry hard within it. For the rest of the time, tell your anxious thoughts that you will give them your attention only during their regular appointment.

Derail your train of (anxious) thought. Our worries often have a mechanical, repetitive quality, like a train going around a circular track. There are a number of ways to bring them to a halt, including snapping a rubber band on your wrist, thinking about something that requires concentration (like counting down from one hundred by sevens), repeatedly reciting a prayer or mantra, or shouting "Stop!" in your mind. You can do distracting activities such as making cookies with your toddler, playing a sport, or reading a novel (with a happy ending!). Simply focusing for a minute or two on some aspect of your environment, such as the grain on a wooden table or the steam coming off a cup of tea, is deeply calming. Or you could meditate (see this article), which has been shown to be quite effective in lowering anxiety. (If worrying keeps you awake at night, please see our suggestions about sleep in this article)

Settle your body. Breathing techniques, massage, or simply a hot shower can reduce anxiety and lift your overall mood. Cutting down on caffeine or eliminating it entirely could also make a big difference. Instead of coffee, try some soothing herbal teas such as chamomile or peppermint.

Talk it out. When you tell someone about your concerns, you get them out of your head and into the open where you and the other person can judge how serious they actually are. It'll make you feel better to hear that others have similar fears, and you can also find out how they handled them.



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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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