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Sometimes Worry is Worthless and Fear is a Friend

We women generally worry more than men.  For example, “While men are bearing the brunt of the job losses, women report much higher levels of fear and worry about their families’ financial security than men do” and women worry more than their husbands about prostate cancer coming back.

Yet it is vital to recognize the difference between worry and fear.

How, for example,  can we know when a fear for personal safety is justified and when a worry is sapping our spirit and making us see the world simply as a dangerous place?

“Our fears are fashioned out of the ways in which we perceive the world,” wrote Gavin Becker, author of The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.

Better to learn how to recognize when someone’s hostile or other less apparently dangerous actions are, in fact, a danger to you, so you can act to protect yourself, and not let unfounded fears and worry contaminate your life.

What can we do?  Revise FDR’s advice, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” by using our gut instincts well, with this variation:  “There is nothing to fear unless and until you feel fear.”

Whenever you’ve felt profound fear, it was linked to the presence of danger, imminent pain or death.

Said DeBecker in a National Public Radio interview, “When we get a fear signal, our intuition has already made many connections.  When you feel fear, try to ‘link’ it back to a past situation where the feeling that was similar to see if your fear is, in fact, justified.”

When you feel it, take notice to find the link back to see if you need to take action.  How rational are our fears?  In the 1960s a study was done on what single word evoked the greatest psychologically strong reactions of fear.  The study included words like spider, snake death, rape, murder and incest.  Shark evoked the strongest reaction.

But why?  Sharks rarely come in contact with us.  Three reasons:  the seeming randomness of their strike, the lack of warning for it and the apparent lack of remorse.

Yet man is a potential predator with far more abilities to approach, disguise and deceive.  While the media often portray human violence as random, de Becker points out how it seldom is, and how you can anticipate the patterns in most cases, if you listen to your instinct of genuine fear and take action.  DeBecker’s book describes how you can better protect yourself by learning to recognize and act on the intuitive signals you pick up but reject as unfounded.

Worry, on the other hand, is the fear we manufacture.

Worry, anxiety, concern and wariness all have a purpose, but they are not fear.  Any time your dreaded outcome cannot be reasonably linked to pain or death and it isn’t a signal in the presence of danger, then it really should not be confused with fear.

Worry will not bring solutions.  Worry distracts from finding solutions.

See it as a form of self-harassment.

To free yourself from worry sooner, understand what it really is.  Most people worry because it provides some secondary reward such as:

• Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter.

• Worry allows us to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we’re doing something.  Prayer also makes us feel like we’re doing something, and even the most committed agnostic will admit that prayer is more productive than worry.

•  Worry is a cloying way to have a connection with others.  Worry somehow shows love.  The other side of this is the belief that not worrying about someone means you don’t care about that person.  As many people who’ve been worried about know well, worry is a poor substitute for love or for taking loving action.

• Worry is a protection against future disappointment.  After you complete an important project where the success of your approach won’t be known for some while, for example, you can worry about it.  Ostensibly, if you can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens.

But how would you want to spend the time while you find out:  worrying, playing or initiating another action on another endeavor?

For some people, worrying is a “magical amulet”, according to Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman.  Some people feel it wards off danger. They truly believe that worrying about something will stop it from happening.

Most of what people worry about has a low probability of occurring, because we tend to take action about those things we feel are likely to occur.  This means that very often the mere fact that you are worrying about something is a predictor that it isn’t likely to happen.

The connection between real fear and worry is similar to the relationship between pain and suffering.  Pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life.  Suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary parts of life.  Worry interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens your life.

When worrying, ask yourself, “How does this serve me?”

To be free of fear and yet still get its gift, consider these techniques:

1. When you feel fear, listen.

2.  When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

We choke on anxiety.

Anxiety, unlike real fear and like worry, is always caused by uncertainty.  it is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence.  If you predict you will be fired and you are certain that your prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired, but about the ramifications of losing a job.

Predictions in which you have a high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever you need to do.

You can reduce your anxiety by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty.  It is worth doing, because the word anxiety, like worry, stems from a root that means “to choke,” and that is just what it does to us.

Our imaginations can be fertile soil in which worry and anxiety grow from seeds to weeds, but when we assume the imagined outcome is a sure thing, we are in conflict with what Proust called an inexorable law:  “Only that which is absent can be imagined.”  In other words, what you imagine — just like what you fear — is not happening.

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