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Break the Chain of Worry

Ever feel like a broken record of worries is playing endlessly in your head? Maybe you're anticipating the misery you'll encounter if you don't get your finances under control. Or a voice keeps singing the pink-slip blues, even though you haven't actually received one.

While some worrying can help you recognize problems (or outsmart potential ones), too often worrying becomes toxic and paralyzes us. "Ruminating interferes with your ability to solve problems, so the problems persist or get worse and you have more worry and stress," says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan and author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life (Henry Holt, 2003).

To make your worry work for you, take the following steps.

Step 1: Find another focus. When something bad happens — your boss chews you out or you discover your bank account is overdrawn again — you may need to take time to step back from the situation. So set aside a block of time in your day for a positive distraction, such as a cardio class or scrapbooking. "The point is to break the hold that rumination has on your mind and body," Nolen-Hoeksema says. Later, you can return to the challenging situation with a more productive mind-set.

Step 2: Worry with a friend. Never worry alone: "Worry does its damage when it's done in isolation because that's when people catastrophize," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Mass., and author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition (Ballantine, 1999). It's best if you can mull over the problem face to face with a confidant, but what matters is that you connect with someone and use him or her to get a reality check. "This can give some structure to your ruminations and put you in a better problem-solving mode," Nolen-Hoeksema says.

Step 3: Take action. If you're afraid you'll never get out of debt, contact a credit counselor. Obsessing about a mole that seems cancerous? Get a referral to a dermatologist. "You're always better off taking action against the problem than letting it take action against you," Hallowell says. "When you have a plan you feel more in control and less vulnerable, which automatically reduces toxic worry." Journaling can help by getting all your thoughts on paper: Write about the situation freely and jot down three potential solutions.

Step 4: Let it go. If there's a problem you simply can't solve — such as a sibling's selfish nature or the stock market's volatility — release yourself from the worry cycle. Visualize inflating a balloon with your worry and letting it float into the sky. As Hallowell puts it, "Worry can be like a 30-pound weight on your back — you don't know how heavy it is until you take it off."

If you find yourself unable to get worry under control even after making a conscious effort, or if you're experiencing other related symptoms, such as shortness of breath or a sense of impending doom, speak to your doctor. Excessive worry can be symptomatic of an anxiety disorder or depression.

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