How to Stop Worrying

Daily Health Solutions
on October 1, 2010
Lori Nichols

Just about anyone who knows me can tell you: I worry. A lot. I even have a wrinkle to prove it—a stubborn crease etched between my brows that my sisters and I call the "Irene Line," so named after our mother, who had the same fretful furrow. My hair stylist once gently suggested I get that puppy Botoxed, which only gave me something new to worry about.

"Doesn't your brain get exhausted?" my husband sometimes asks. Yes, I admit. And while everyone knows chronic worry can lead to a host of health problems—headaches, insomnia and stomach issues, to name just a few—wha'ís less clear is how to stop. I've heard all kinds of advice, from deep breathing (may help some, but not me) to meditation (my mind always wanders) to my husband's snappy "Lighten up!" (um, thanks, Honey). For us hard-core angsters, banishing worry isn't all that easy.

For help, I turn to a classic. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie, has been a best-seller for decades, supposedly helping millions kick worry to the curb. Perhaps its vintage advice can cure me.

"Don't stew about the future," Chapter 1 says. "Just live each day until bedtime." The idea is to lock out the past, shut out the future. That job interview you bombed last week? Forget about it. How will you afford college for your kids? Stop obsessing. Just pay attention to today.

The book even has a quaint phrase for this kind of stay-in-the-moment thinking, a line borrowed from a famous speech. "Living in day-tight compartments," it's called. The phrase reminds me of those watertight spaces once built into ocean liners to keep them afloat, and I briefly picture Kate and Leo fighting the rising waves in Titanic. But we're not talking doomed ships here. Stick to the day-tight compartments, Mr. Carnegie says, and you'll keep from drowning in worry.

Days later, I'm shocked to see the same phrase on Facebook. "Trying to live in day-tight compartments," my friend's status update reads. Coincidence? Maybe. I get the same message in yoga class. "Don't try to hold onto the past or reach too far for the future. Stay in the present," our instructor says as we wobble in a warrior pose. It's the day-tight compartments again, only on sticky mats. I hear yet another version on late-night TV, as actress Susan Sarandon shows Late Night host David Letterman the inky verse tattooed like a bracelet around her wrist. "A-N-D, A-N-D," she reads. "A New Dawn, A New Day." Is someone trying to tell me something?

Still, I resist. Mindfulness, staying in the moment, living in day-tight compartments—call it what you will, but frankly, the idea makes my eyes roll. Focusing on the present may sound good in theory, but to me it's one of those psycho-talky concepts that's way easier said than done.

Except for one thing. It works. I start to envision past/now/future as the channels on a TV screen (the ultimate in reality television, I guess). When I stop frantically surfing backward and forward and allow my inner remote to sit on now, I begin noticing things I often take for granted. My cat purring by my laptop. The smell of banana bread baking in the oven. Jason Mraz on the radio singing "I'm Yours," a song that makes me smile even in rush-hour traffic. I listen to my elderly friend's meandering stories, hear the years and wisdom in her voice. I become focused. And something else: I feel happy. Worries fade; gratitude slips in.

It's been two months, and I still have a ways to go. Sometimes I catch myself drifting back into my worry world. But then I remind myself to stop, and pay attention. Breaking the worry habit takes effort, I've learned. But that's work for another day.