How Not To Worry

“Worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but gets you nowhere.

Beyond finding it amusing, this quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of my favorite because it shifts my thinking into a more affirmative mindset, and orients me toward action, an avenue to anxiety relief.

We worry about lots of things, some of which we’re able to control and much of which we’re not. Will I prevail on my motion? Will my presentation go well? Will my clients pay their bill? How will distance learning affect my children? Are my loved ones safe? Will Covid-19 end soon? The list is endless.

Our innate ability to anticipate the future is a uniquely human gift that enables us to plan both for unforeseen and predictable events. Lawyers, especially, are trained to anticipate worst-case scenarios for their clients, so that they’re able to avoid potential pitfalls, maximize negotiation outcomes, or plan litigation strategy. “What if” scenarios are common, yet also the source of much, if not most, of our modern-day worry. The “what ifs” of daily life can be anxiety provoking and debilitating, especially when not addressed or curtailed. Some people feel that if they don’t worry, worse things will happen. The reality is, that worrying is a problem, not a solution.

So how do we worry less and enjoy our professional and personal lives more? Here are several immediate steps that can be taken to bring more ease into your life.  

Worry time Rather than allow worry to seep into your day, schedule time, say 15 or 20 minutes, to think about the things that are concerning you. Give it a beginning and an end. Make an appointment to address concerns over which you’re ruminating, so that you can free up mental space. We can only keep three or four thoughts in mind at the same time, so worrying diverts much-needed mental resources. Making an appointment allows us to address specific concerns at the appropriate time.

Write your worries down The very act of writing down our concerns diminishes the powerful emotions and anxious feelings associated with them. An added benefit is that the hand and brain are closely connected, so oftentimes, the act of writing them down presents a solution. Writing is known to be an excellent tool for sorting information and problem solving. Writing down your worries also gives them a placeholder, so you don’t need to continually ruminate about them, again, freeing up mental space. Add new worries to your list as they enter your mind to quickly remove them from first place.

Worst-case scenario Yes, I said that. Rather than worry, take your concern to its worst possible outcome. Often, the worry far outweighs the reality. And if there is a dire reality, this exercise becomes an opportunity to outline the actions that avoid that potential outcome. I ran through this with a student who was terrified that she was going to fail the bar exam. Rather than reassure her, we went through the “what ifs” and came up with a plan, so that she was able to set that concern aside and focus on what needed to be done to pass. AND …

Best-case scenario Our minds are always eavesdropping on our thoughts. We may be worried about what will happen if we don’t achieve a specific outcome, but more importantly, what if we do? How do we plan for achieving our optimal outcome? Do you spend time considering the benefits of things going right? It serves us to anticipate and plan for the best possible outcomes, even more so than the alternative, so that we can make choices that move us toward that outcome.

Acknowledge what went right Our brains have a negativity bias that can tarnish reality. We have the ability to override that bias by broadening our perspective and recognizing what is working. And face it, more goes right than not, so rather than taking that for granted, it serves us to give our effective efforts the attention they deserve, so that we can repeat them. What went right today? Perhaps you filed a motion or brief with the court, made progress on that article you’re writing for the bar journal, filed a trademark application, settled an employment dispute. Shift the balance by spending as much time noticing what went right, as didn’t. You may be surprised to find that very little goes “wrong” most days. Aligning our mindset with what’s working shifts both our experience of the day and drives better outcomes.

Did the things you worried about actually happen?

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.” This quote has been attributed to many well-known philosophers and writers, among them Michel de Montaigne and Mark Twain. Regardless of who originally said it, its essence holds true. Challenge your thinking. Are you rejecting other perspectives, or catastrophizing? Beware of assuming that your beliefs reflect reality. Make sure that you’re not allowing an overprotective narrative to limit your actions. And speaking of action …

Action alleviates anxiety, often even when it’s unrelated to the event, such as going for a run or meditating while waiting for a jury decision.

Finally, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to include the Stoics.

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives! Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Humans have been worrying about the future for more than 2000 years. Granted, there’s much to be concerned about these days, we have an equal and even greater opportunity for optimism and action in a positive direction.  

Keep thriving,

Judith