I’m sitting in a sunny piazza in Rome, drinking a perfect cup of cappuccino, at the beginning of a long vacation. You’d think I’d be floating on cloud nine in total relaxation.
I’m not. Instead, I’m consumed with worry, eating me up inside, making me so queasy that I can’t even dig into the delicate fried zucchini flowers that are a Roman specialty. Instead, a persistent negative dialogue buzzes in my head as I contemplate the possible payback for my break from routine: What if I don’t get enough writing assignments to outweigh the expense of my Italian splurge? How will I pay the bills? What was I thinking?
It’s not that I don’t have projects waiting once I get home. I have plenty, the deadlines looming, and I worry about that, too, the nasty voice in my head continually hissing: You have work to do! Get back to the hotel.
The constant clamor inside my head robs me of the pleasure I know any normal person would be experiencing, yet however hard I try, it seems I can’t appreciate the feel of the sun on my skin, nor the cute little frothy-milk heart the friendly barista has formed in my oversized cup. Do I really want to spoil a trip that I worked so hard to make happen? Is there anything I can do to calm my anxious soul?
“Certain people do seem to be especially vulnerable to worry,” says Peg Baim, director of the relaxation response resiliency program at the Herbert Benson Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Like hair and eye color, anxiety can be passed down from grandparent to parent and beyond. A 2015 study of multiple generations of rhesus monkeys published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found strong evidence that 35 percent of brain changes associated with anxiety were genetically linked.
“When you grow up with parents who are experts at activating the stress response—whether because of their tone of voice or because they believe the world is a dangerous place—that information gets stored in a child’s brain,” Baim says.
Not to point the finger at my own loving mother, but she would be the first to admit to a tendency to worry (perhaps a tad excessively). Her mom was a worrier, too; indeed, I come from a long line of nervous Jewish mothers. Maybe I’m doomed to a lifetime of ruined vacations.
Baim reassures me that regardless of DNA, I am capable of becoming a calmer person. “Your brain can get remodeled again,” she says. A 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry offers promising evidence: Swedish researchers did brain imaging studies of people with social anxiety disorder before and after a nine-week program of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focused on helping them change their negative, stress-inducing thoughts. Afterward, the subjects who did CBT showed less reactivity in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, and reported less stress. There was no change in people who didn’t do the therapy.
That doesn’t surprise Peg Baim, who used to be quite the worrier herself, complete with panic attacks. Then she met mind-body expert Herb Benson, M.D., founder of the Massachusetts General Mind-Body Institute, and learned some of his strategies for calming down. Baim was so impressed by the results that she now gives talks around the country on how to relax—something that would have once made her quake.
I’m game to learn how to talk myself down from the ledge, too, preferably before I waste any more of the glorious afternoon, not to mention the rest of my holiday. Plus, in the morning, the plan is to drive out to the countryside with a friend who lives in Rome. We’ll hike by a stream, then have lunch at her favorite inn, where they grow their own olives and make their own olive oil. I vow to get more advice from Baim and other experts before I go, then put their wisdom to use.
Strategy #1: Widen your perspective.
One way to counteract a worry-filled vision of the future, says Ellen Langer, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, is to take a broader view of what might happen. “If you believe something awful will occur, you’ll feel stressed out,” she warns. Instead, Langer instructs me to envision multiple views of a future event, at least some of them positive. “When you consider several outcomes instead of defaulting to the worst case scenario, your stress will dissipate,” she promises.
I remember that later, when I check the forecast on my phone and discover that thunderstorms are scheduled for the day of our hike. Instantly, my head is filled with visions of skidding down slippery hills, lightning crackling above. If it rains, our day trip will be ruined, I worry. Then I take a deep breath, and force myself to come up with a few brighter possibilities. Maybe it won’t rain! Forecasts are wrong all the time. That feels kind of hollow, so I try: If it rains, we can skip the hike and cozy up at the inn with a good book. I feel my angst dissipate a bit and make a mental note to pack my Kindle along with a water bottle. If it pours, I’ll be ready with reading material.
Strategy #2: Keep your brain in the present.
“Life is a series of moments,” Langer tells me. “If you stay in the moment, and make that moment matter, you are making your life matter. But when you waste your time worrying, you’re wasting your life.”
I’ve heard that kind of “be present” stuff before. After all, I’ve taken my share of yoga classes. What I want to know is, what if something bad does happen, like an accident, or a cancer diagnosis? Then what? Is worry ever warranted? “If you must worry,” Langer says, “you’ll have plenty of time to do it when the bad event happens, if it ever does.”
Peg Baim confirms that staying present is an effective antidote to worry: “When you hang out in the moment, your experience of time expands and your brain gives you a richer experience—a process known as time dilation,” she says. “Whether you’re eating, washing dishes, or taking a drive. You want to linger in what I think of as the beautiful now.”
Strategy #3: Practice looking forward to things instead of dreading them.
One of my mother’s favorite expressions was the Yiddish phrase Kein Ayin Hora, which roughly translates to “don’t tempt the evil eye.” She used it whenever I said something positive, like, “I’m so lucky that all my grandparents are alive!” to which she’d reply, Kein Ayin Hora! “In many cultures, it’s considered smart to expect the worst—somehow, magically, that means the worst won’t happen,” Baim tells me. That hits home for me but she adds that the opposite is true: “More good things will happen if you expect good things. Once you plant a few positive ideas in your brain, it will drive you toward those good things. That’s called selective thinking. You’ll notice the positive in life.”
I try to reflect on the good things I wish for on our outing—a trek in the fresh air, no Vespas whizzing by. I close my eyes and imagine the dappled sunlight, the breeze ruffling my hair, the soft cushion of moss beneath my feet. I also envision lunch at the inn, which will most likely include pasta and a glass of local wine. Mmmmm. Maybe even rustic bread dipped in homemade olive oil. I can practically taste it.
Strategy #4: Think about the opposite of what you’re worried about.
Like all champion angsters, I don’t only worry about myself. I also worry about loved ones. Like my husband of five years, who is at home in the middle of a work crunch. I worry he’ll be mad at me because I went on this trip without him, even though he encouraged me to do it. I worry about other things, too—that he’ll develop a terrible illness and expire prematurely (like his father), leaving me a widow. I worry that he will crash his little green sports car when he whips around curves or floors it on the straightaways. I worry that he’ll get skin cancer because he forgets to wear sunscreen, or that he’ll crack his head open when he rides his bike without a helmet. When I recite this litany to Langer, she says, “What you want to do is come up with an opposite set of possibilities, and think about them so hard that they feel as real as the terrible stuff you’re imagining.” She pauses, then throws me a question. “Is your husband a good driver?”
“Yes, he’s the best,” I reply, remembering the time, on our third date, that he expertly avoided a crash after some idiot cut him off on the highway. She tells me to think about that, along with that fact that he is also driving a fancy sports car, with impeccable handling. “The kind of car that easily avoids crashes,” she emphasizes.
Next, she moves on to my fear that the man I love will get sick and I’ll be left alone. “Maybe it’s true that his father died young, but what about his grandfather? What about his mother? Plus, he’s healthy now, right?” I acknowledge that my husband is practically brimming with robust good health. He works out nearly every day, and has more energy than men who are decades younger. I think about my husband’s mother, who lived into her 80s, active and vibrant almost until the very end. “If you continue to think about all the ways your husband is healthy, all his advantages, all the ways he takes care of himself, and not just the fact that his dad died fairly young, you’re creating a more positive picture. Keep reviewing that picture, and you’ll start to feel silly for worrying about his death,” she asserts.
I think about that strategy, and all the others I’ve learned, when my friend and I scramble into her tiny Fiat the next day and drive toward the hills, despite the dark clouds massing on the horizon. When I see lightning and hear the faint clap of thunder, I think about the juicy novel I’ve queued up on my Kindle, snug in my backpack. If it rains, I’ll read by the fire at the inn, I tell myself, and feel better. Then I train my gaze away from the sky and toward a herd of sheep grazing an impossibly green field. I try, desperately, to stay in the moment instead of worrying about the future, keeping my eyes on the sheep and all the other gorgeous scenery rushing by, absorbing every detail. The next time I think about the weather, I realize that the sky has cleared, and that I’ve just saved myself a half hour of fruitless fretting.
Soon enough, we’re pulling off the road into a wooded area, the sound of a stream rushing far below. Time to hike! We set off, my friend in the lead, and everything is going fine until she drops a bombshell: “Oh, and by the way,” she says casually. “Did I mention that we’re wading across that stream down there? The current is a bit strong, but it will cut off a big swath of the trail and give us more time at the inn.”
I crane my neck to get a closer look at the rocky, rushing, cold-looking (!) body of water my friend expects me to traverse, barefoot no less. I’ve never been especially coordinated. But instead of picturing myself flat on my butt in the water, I use the “opposites” strategy and quickly recite all the reasons I won’t slip in the water and humiliate myself:
1. My friend is an experienced hiker! I can hold her hand!
2. I can go very slowly.
3. I love swimming. Even if I get wet, it’s no big deal.
4. If I slip, my friend will help me up.
5. Whatever happens, it will make a good story—and I love a good story.
Before I know it, I’m clutching my friend’s hand in a death grip and we’re wading in, up to our knees, wobbling against the current. The water is icy and my feet immediately go numb. But I keep moving forward, so eager to get across that at one point, I am actually leading her! “You’re doing great!” she enthuses, and in five minutes, we arrive on the far bank. I’m breathless, my feet are muddy and tingling, and I feel exhilarated, better, in fact, than I have for weeks.
Partly, it’s the fresh air and exercise, but I also have to credit my efforts to leave worry behind. When we arrive at the sweet little inn, where a boisterous lab and three friendly cats greet us on the landing, lunch is already on the table—homemade pasta, fresh bread and homemade olive oil to dip it in, a carafe of rustic red wine, just as I imagined. As I pull up a seat, I realize I’m not particularly worried about anything—not work, money, not even my husband, who, I’m sure, is safe and healthy at his office. Instead, I’m fully in the moment, feeling incredibly grateful for everything: Italy, my friend and her strong hands, and the delectable food in front of me. I can’t wait to dig in.
By Paula Derrow