Woman lying on train tracks
Photo: Geof Kern
Whatever's keeping you up at night—enough already! Suzan Colón checks in with a bunch of experts who'll convince you to give peace of mind a chance.
I used to worry. A lot. About things large and small, about what was happening with the world and with me, about the future, the present, the pie I ate the night before. I agonized over relationships—were they destined to break up? And my hips—were they fated to break down? Unfortunately, I got better at it: I went from stressing about garden-variety worries that anyone would regard as reasonable to logging many unhappy hours catastrophizing about the possibility of highly unlikely disasters.

I was hardly alone in this; I have friends who've also turned worrying into a second job. And so I wondered: Why do we worry so much? It turns out that we can thank, or blame, our evolutionary heritage. In prehistoric times, worry kept us from wandering into the lion's den. Today we're much safer, in the grand scheme of things, but that sensitive warning system isn't easily dialed down. So it sits around wondering if so-and-so likes us, suspecting that the boss is being nice to us because we're about to get fired, and conjuring all the other doomsday scenarios that keep us up at night.

One day, after becoming paralyzed over what to have for lunch—too fattening? too much meat? were the vegetables full of pesticides?—I got fed up. I was sick of obsessing about my health, of feeling the pain in my shoulders from the weight of the world, of knowing that tomorrow's forecast was always going to be cloudy with a chance of regret.

I made a list of my worries, asked my friends for theirs, and took them to a group of experts to find out how we should handle them. What the pros had to say could soothe even the most nervous soul—and lead to a sudden surge in the world's population of "What, me worry?" types. All together now: Whew.

1. I have a bad feeling: I'm never going to lose this weight.

You can't put all your emotional eggs in the weight loss basket. People say, "I'll be happy when I reach this size…," but that's a problem, because either you don't reach the goal, or you do—and you're no happier than you were 40 pounds ago. Then you ask yourself why you did all this work, you go back to the way you were before, and the lose-gain-lose cycle begins.

Instead of worrying about the future, work toward leading a fulfilled life today. That will naturally make you want to be healthy. Eating right and exercising are my two fields, but when I meet with a client, I ask her about the things that really hold the secret to her success—what the most important areas of her life are, and how she feels about each one.

So do a little self-discovery. Look at what brings you joy and what isn't going so well. Have a life plan as opposed to a weight plan. Next, figure out how active you're willing to be and how much time you can devote to exercise. Then balance the calories—but don't deprive yourself. I've never found anyone who should be eating fewer than 1,500 calories.

Finally, set realistic goals, or you're bound to fail. Adjust your thinking about what's healthy for you, given your genetics. Some of the healthiest people on the planet are heavier than what we claim is the ideal. Being realistic is not only important, it's empowering. — Bob Greene

(Greene is the author of The Best Life Diet [Simon & Schuster].)

2. I worry that my husband will cheat on me and I won't be able to forgive him. And I'm not even married yet!

You're probably worried that your spouse will have extramarital sex or an emotional affair. But there are many ways to cheat: neglect, indifference, spite, refusal of physical intimacy, lack of respect. "Cheating" fails to describe the multiple ways people let each other down.

Before thinking about whether you'd be able to forgive him, it's important to understand what violations of trust mean to a relationship. Forgiveness doesn't mean acceptance but rather understanding, the ability to come to terms with a certain reality, and a willingness to live with it while it finds its place in our lives.

I once worked with a couple who had been together since high school. The man had an affair after his father died because he wanted to break loose from the constrictions he felt had been imposed on him by his father, and to rebel against being dutiful and responsible. While the wife was no less hurt, understanding that the affair had very little to do with her gave it a different meaning. The couple also gained new insights into each other: This strong woman showed a vulnerable side her husband hadn't been aware of, and this bold man was not the husband she thought she knew.

The thought that a partner can leave is not a baseless worry; it's a fact of love. There is no love without the fear of loss. Rather than becoming anxious about the possibility of your spouse cheating on you, think of your concern as an awareness that is part of being in a relationship. — Esther Perel, MA

(Perel is the author of Mating in Captivity [HarperCollins].)

3. The clock is ticking, but I'm not sure I want a child—yet I worry that if I don't have one, I'll regret it when it's too late.

There are parts of life where you can compromise, but not here: You either have a child or don't.

The fear of regretting that you didn't have a child is not the best reason to have one. That said, rarely have I seen a patient who regretted becoming a mother, because once the baby is in the world, the woman loves it. Usually, the woman wants to be a parent and it's her spouse who isn't sure; he goes along with it because he listens to her fear of regret. Yet when the baby is born, he doesn't regret it either; he loves it, too.

On the other hand, I have had patients who've regretted not having children. The good news is, there are so many ways you can rectify that, including adoption and IVF. — Gail Saltz, MD

(Dr. Saltz is a psychiatrist and author of Anatomy of a Secret Life [Morgan Road].)

4. Cancer runs in my family. Am I destined to get it, too?

Not necessarily. The top three things you can do to tip the odds in your favor are to maintain a waistline that's generally less than half your height in inches, eat low on the food chain, and not be a toxic dump—avoid exposure to cigarette smoke and asbestos, things like that. You can't control your genes, but they aren't as significant as how you affect them with risk factors you can control, such as smoking and obesity. — Mehmet Oz, MD

(Dr. Oz is the coauthor [with Michael F. Roizen] of You, on a Diet [Free Press].)

5. When I buy clothing made in Third World countries, am I exploiting the poor? Or in poverty-stricken areas, is any kind of economy good?

It'll surprise a lot of Americans to hear this, but in general buying cheap clothes from foreign factories actually helps the workers. True, there are problems with terrible facilities that use unsafe chemicals or lock the fire doors, but people in poor countries generally see factory jobs as better than many of the alternatives, such as peddling, farmwork, or day labor. East Asia has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty by developing a model of export factories.

Americans usually focus on the low wages and bad conditions—workers earning 15 cents for making a shirt that will sell for $15. But for the person who makes that shirt, the alternative is usually a job that is more dangerous and pays less. I interviewed workers scavenging in a dump in Indonesia, and I'll never forget the mother who told me that she dreamed that her children would someday work in what we'd call a sweatshop.

Of course, if you want to pay more for a shirt that's produced by workers who get better treatment, terrific. But it's the poorest countries, where wages and working conditions are the worst, that most desperately need the jobs. And the most effective foreign aid is often to start a manufacturing industry in those countries. — Nicholas D. Kristof

(Kristof is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.)

6. As I get older, I'm terrified of losing my mind—the idea of dementia scares the hell out of me.

One of the best ways to prevent dementia is to challenge the brain. People tend to go for mental workouts like crossword puzzles, which are good, but exercise is better. It gives you a twofold benefit: First, whether you're learning a new sport or playing one you know, it makes your brain work in ways that it doesn't normally. When I play basketball, I'm calculating how to make a jump shot; when I jog, I'm daydreaming and brainstorming—things I don't do when I'm at my desk. Second, while crossword puzzles build your vocabulary, exercise builds your vascular system and promotes healthier blood vessels, so you can stave off the small strokes that are often part of the dementia picture. — Mehmet Oz, MD

7. I don't think I'll ever swim out from under the pile of work I have at the office!

You're right. The reality is that you'll never get to the bottom of your to-do list. The way our work world has evolved, it isn't humanly possible anymore. It's not just information overload; it's opportunity overload—there are always a million things to do. And please, forget multitasking. It doesn't increase efficiency at all, and it taxes brain cells in the frontal cortex, which has a terrible impact on performance.

Here's how to prioritize. I teach a concept called "dancing close to the revenue line." Evaluate the items on your to-do list in terms of their proximity to what will make money soonest for your company. Most people tackle the easiest tasks first so they can check off a lot of little things that don't matter at the end of the day. Instead, when you go into work, ask yourself, If I ran out of time today, what would be the one thing that, completed, would give me the greatest sense of accomplishment and contribution? When you take care of that, it won't matter if the rest of the day goes to hell in a handbasket. — Julie Morgenstern

(Morgenstern is the author of Never Check E-Mail in the Morning [Fireside].)

8. I worry about my dad's health—and the fact that he doesn't.

What we resist persists: When people are pushed, they almost always push back. The more you try to talk your dad into minding his health, the more he'll be able to ignore his physical symptoms and focus on pushing back against your "interference." Instead of nagging him or pointedly substituting steamed fish for steak, take excellent care of your own health and accept him without judgment—or accommodation. In other words, don't coddle him by holding back on normal activities. Let him experience the natural consequences of ignoring his health (breathlessness while playing with the grandkids, trouble concentrating during family poker games) so that he, not you, will be the one who decides he needs to be more conscientious. — Martha Beck, PHD

(Beck is a life coach, author, and O columnist.)

9. I'm afraid my retirement home is going to be a cardboard box. How do I keep from becoming a bag lady?

That's a common fear: In a 2006 survey, nearly half the women respondents said they've imagined ending up homeless.

Concentrate on saving as much as possible for retirement. If you're 30 years old and you invest $250 a month for the next 35 years with an annual average return of approximately 8 percent, you'll have more than $575,000 by the time you're 65. Sock away $500 a month and you'll have $1.15 million. If you're 45 and can put away $250, in 20 years you'll have about $150,000; $500 a month will yield nearly $300,000. No procrastinating and no running up big credit card bills. If you are over 45 and own a home, aim to have the mortgage paid off before you retire. If anyone tells you you'll lose the mortgage interest deduction, set them straight: That deduction is most valuable in the early years of the loan. And in retirement, because you'll have total equity in the home, you can generate income to live on by doing a reverse mortgage (a loan that the lender pays you, based on the equity you have in your home, to be repaid only upon moving or death). To accelerate your mortgage payments, scale back your 401(k) investing so it is just enough to get the maximum company match. — Suze Orman

(Orman is O's financial columnist.)

10. I don't have enough money to travel! I'm afraid I'll never see French Polynesia, China, and other places I dream of.

Waiting to have enough money will keep you securely ensconced at home. Consider the wonders of America that can be yours for a weekend and the price of a tank of gas (expensive, yes, but still cheaper than plane tickets). Tourists come from all over the globe to see our national treasures, but how many New Yorkers don't personally know the beauty of the historic Hudson Valley? How many Seattleites have never visited the Walla Walla wine region? How many folks in Dallas have yet to two-step their way through the old-time dance halls of Texas's Hill Country?

If you're still hungry for something exotic, you can find that frisson of foreign travel right here in North America. You can hear Cajun spoken in southern Louisiana, and French in the historic neighborhoods of Old Montreal and Old Quebec. The past is very much alive in the Gaelic culture of Nova Scotia and in the Amish communities of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

But don't give up your dream of a larger trip. Make a plan, and make it happen. Commit to a specific departure date, and put aside money regularly. Time passes quickly; better to spend it looking forward to your trip than allowing regrets to build. — Patricia Schultz

(Schultz is the author of 1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die [Workman].)

11. I panic when I can't reach my partner. If I call or e-mail and he doesn't get back to me within an hour, I picture him being washed away by a tidal wave or run over by a truck.

There are several levels of questions I would ask. First, are you watching a lot of TV and focusing on disaster? If that's the case, turn off the TV and concentrate on the good things in your life. Next, do you worry only about your partner? If so, you may be too dependent on him and feel that if something really did happen to him, you'd be lost. Find ways to be more self-sufficient and widen your social network. If you worry about something bad happening to your child, parents, and other loved ones, look deeper for the cause. Are you obsessing about others because you're avoiding your own problems? Do you need to keep tabs on everybody because you have control issues? Was there a trauma in your life that causes you to fixate on bad possibilities? Or were you raised by worrying parents, such as a mother who said, "I thought you'd been hit by a truck!" if you came home late from school?

Whatever your reasons, try this exercise: Ask yourself if you're feeling angry about something; then ask if you're feeling sad, guilty, or fearful. Whatever the feeling, go to its opposite. For anger, that's gratitude; for sadness, it's joy; for guilt, it's pride; for fear, it's security. Now ask, what are you grateful for? Joyful about? What do you feel proud of and secure about? Focusing on positive messages, especially what you're secure about in times of fear, can help. — Beverly Engel, MFCT

(Engel is a psychotherapist and the author of Healing Your Emotional Self [Wiley].)

12. I'm so afraid of terrorism, I can't sleep. How unsafe are we?

Terrorism is violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. It often works. Terrorist attacks are deadly, dramatic, and visual; how many times have we watched the World Trade Center's towers fall? And the terror is reinforced by a relentless message of fear in the form of Washington's color-coded alerts and announcements of imminent attack.

The terrorist threat is real, but we must distinguish between threats to our national security and danger to individual citizens—us. The threat we face as individuals is minuscule compared with the everyday risks we accept. Each year the average American has about a one in 7,000 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, and a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered, most likely by a relative or friend. Compare that to about a one in 600,000 chance of dying at the hands of terrorists. Yet, are we ready to toss the keys to the car? Avoid the family picnic? No.

As a nation, we will combat terrorism. As individuals, it is up to us to combat terror—our own—by putting terrorist fears in perspective. — Brian Michael Jenkins

(Jenkins is senior adviser on terrorism and homeland security for the RAND Corporation.)

13. I worry about my bones deteriorating, my body breaking down, needing hip replacement, knee and rotator cuff surgery… Should I become less active in middle age?

If you're in your 40s, pick exercise that's gentler on your joints. For example, you can still run, but do it on the elliptical machine, which has no impact. Or swim, or do yoga.

The best way to maintain bone strength is to do weight-bearing exercises, either with weights or by using your body as the weight, which you do in yoga. Diet also matters. You want less alcohol and carbonated colas (which may interfere with the balance of calcium) and more vitamin D in your system. Exposure to sunlight converts cholesterol in the body into vitamin D, which in turn enables calcium to be deposited in your bones, so try to get 15 minutes of direct sun exposure at least two times a week. If that's not practical, take supplements that contain vitamin D and calcium. Start getting annual bone density screenings at 65; if there's a strong history of osteoporosis in your family, consult with your doctor.

I wouldn't stop doing fun sports for fear of breaking something. Yes, bad stuff happens, but as long as you're taking good care of your body, it's a remarkably versatile machine. — Mehmet Oz, MD

14. I worry that if my husband and I get divorced, he'll find a hundred women who want to replace me, whereas I will never find anyone. No, we're not splitting up…I'm just being pessimistic.

If there's no real basis for your concern, there might be some low self-esteem issues you should divert your attention to. Or you may be an "imaginative worrier," someone who invents different possible futures. When negative events are unlikely but possible, some choose to focus on the possibility, while others don't give it a second thought. Being aware of this classification and shifting these scenarios from "possible" to "highly unlikely" is a useful strategy for combating this kind of worry. — Gillian Butler, PHD, and Tony Hope, MD

(Butler and Hope are coauthors of Managing Your Mind [Oxford].)

15. It feels as if I'm always shortchanging either my family or my job. Is it possible to balance them?

It's not a matter of balance; it's a matter of attitude. All you have to do is follow a simple formula: Wherever you are physically present, be mentally present. When you walk out your front door in the morning, leave the kids' grades, your bills, your grocery list at home, and turn your thoughts toward your job. When you get there, bring 100 percent of your attention to your workplace. You will be more efficient for being completely focused on the tasks at hand.

When you get home, bring all your attention to whoever or whatever is before you. Listen to your kids; don't think about work. Do the same when you converse with your partner. Your relationships will be richer for it. — Paul Wilson

(Wilson is a meditation teacher and the author of Perfect Balance [Tarcher/Penguin].)

16. I find orgasms to be overstimulating, almost painful. Is there something wrong with me?

First, talk to your gynecologist after a full checkup, especially if the contractions felt good in the past and have recently become painful. If that's not the case, it doesn't mean there's something wrong. If you're in your 20s, orgasms might seem painful simply because sex may be relatively new territory for you. Over time, you'll become more familiar with your body and what feels good.

For many women, riding the crest of the wave may be better than going over the top, which can be too intense. It could also be that your partner's stimulation is too direct. Showing your partner what you like and what doesn't work is part of being in a mutually enjoyable sexual relationship. Orgasm doesn't have to be the goal. It's more important, and fun, to figure out what works for both of you. — Hilda Hutcherson, MD

(Dr. Hutcherson is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of Pleasure: A Woman's Guide to Getting the Sex You Want, Need, and Deserve [Perigee].)

17. What freaks me out about turning 50: I'll spend all my time looking back on the things I haven't done.

I'm a grandmother of 12 who remarried three years ago at the age of 68, I've written books, and I host a radio show and write a column, both called Second Wind. That's the theme in my life—getting a second wind after 50.

Regrets are passions that aren't pursued: "I never got a chance to travel, or to be an artist." As you move toward retirement, you get the time to do these things. I was in my 60s when I thought, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" I went back to school to study gerontology and got my master's degree when I was 66. A friend of mine is writing her second novel at the age of 70.

Women had a revolution in the 1970s for liberation and equal pay, and now we're having another revolution about what it means to be older. Aging isn't the end of the road; it's the gift of another beginning. — Mel Walsh, MA

(Walsh is the author of Hot Granny [Chronicle].)

18. I know how I should eat and exercise. Do I do either? No. How bad is my health going to be later on?

You shouldn't just be concerned about health problems in the future. If you want to feel good, function better, and think more clearly, your quality of life will improve today if you do a few simple things—and the side effect is that you'll live longer.

For fitness, try walking. You won't dread it, and it's easy to incorporate into your daily life—walk to a lunch place a little farther from work, walk up stairs. Get a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day.

To improve your diet, eat an ounce of nuts—about a palmful—daily. Walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts have many of the nutrients you need, and they'll satiate you so you won't forage for doughnuts.

And finally, drink water. It's difficult for humans to differentiate between thirst and hunger. If you feel a desire to put something in your mouth, your first response should be water. If that's not enough, then get food—like nuts. — Mehmet Oz, MD

19. I don't want to get wrinkles, but I don't want to have plastic surgery or injections in my face, either. Worriers develop worry lines, don't they?

You're right—our faces reflect where our minds are, so when we worry, that's what we show. There are a few noninvasive steps you can take to reduce lines. I know a woman who swears by Frownies, little pieces of tape you can put on your frown areas at night when you go to sleep to keep you from cultivating lines. Also, get your eyes checked. Chronic squinting can cause wrinkles to develop. If your eyes are okay, look into other ways to channel your stress, like exercise. And if you're going to worry, do it with sunscreen on! — Ranella Hirsch, MD

(Dr. Hirsch is a dermatologist in Boston.)

Still stressing? Find out why "Just let it go" doesn't work


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