By Cynthie Christensen
Years ago, I spotted a billboard in California that read: “Worry is misuse of your imagination.”
Isn’t that the truth? The mind is very good at imagining all kinds of negative things ahead — what if commodity prices stay low, what if we don’t get the crop out before it snows, what if this knee pain gets worse and I have to have surgery, what if I lose my job, what if I can’t afford a nice Christmas, and so on. These negative thoughts feel threatening.
Naturally, we try to get away from threatening situations. However, these are imagined threats. All these what-ifs aren’t real, and they may never be real. Still, we begin to worry and feel anxious when we imagine all the different ways we might handle these situations in the future.
When thinking about a potential challenging situation, we tend to overestimate how bad it is going to get. Also, we tend to underestimate our ability to handle it successfully. Automatic negative self-talk may start, and you begin to tell yourself things such as, “I’m not good enough; I’m stupid; I’m a loser.”
Typically, this triggers stronger feelings of anxiety and panic. Anxiety also triggers physical symptoms of a racing heart, muscle tension, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, numbness or tingling, nausea and difficulty breathing. To cope with it all, we might try to do things perfectly or try to handle it our own. We become critical of ourselves, we worry, we avoid or we go overboard trying to please others and put their needs above our own. It becomes a vicious cycle.
One of the biggest coping strategies is avoidance. Sometimes you can get busy with all kinds of little tasks that help you avoid doing the one thing you should be doing — the most important thing.
We can avoid by isolating, pretending everything is OK, being irritable, using alcohol or marijuana, or acting in other ways. As you can imagine, avoidance doesn’t help the situation. In fact, it may make it worse.
Worry can become a habit. We all know people who are “worriers.” I remember a neighbor being described as a “Nervous Nellie.” Rather than being criticized for it, it was just accepted. Unfortunately, worriers often miss out on the daily moments of their lives because they are so focused on the future. Your thoughts are too far forward and you are trying to predict what will happen rather than focusing on living in the present moment.
Practice mindfulness to cope with stress
Mindfulness is a great coping strategy for anxiety. Mindfulness is a fancy way of saying “pay attention to the experience of now.” It really is the only moment you have. Usually, we handle what’s in the moment without thinking that it’s good or bad, it just is reality. After the moment has passed, we judge whether it was good or bad.
How else can you manage anxiety? Probably one of the most important things is to recognize that you are anxious and stressed. Try to figure out what you are worrying about. If you are unaware of what you are doing, there is no chance to do something different.
One strategy is to set realistic goals for a situation. As an example, if you get overwhelmed by the holidays, take some time to think about what you and your family value about Christmas and simplify.
Instead of trying to do everything, do what is important. Make a realistic plan, break it down into smaller goals, and use your resources. You don’t have to do everything by yourself. Talk positively about yourself, and remember past success.
If you find yourself avoiding things you need to be doing, if your thoughts are racing ahead, and/or you have butterflies in your stomach or a tightening in your chest, recognize that you might be misusing your imagination. Take a deep breath and focus on right now.
You can handle “right now.”
Christensen is a licensed professional clinical counselor and has her own therapy practice, Oak Ridge Teletherapy. She is also credentialed as a distance counselor, which prepares her to work with clients via the internet. She has worked as an acute psychiatric nurse at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for the past 18 years. Email her at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on mental health published by The Farmer. We welcome comments and questions from our readers. Contact us at [email protected].
Mental health resources available in Minnesota
• Check your local medical clinic, county social and/or mental health services or church.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness: Call the St. Paul office at 888-626-4435. Many cities have local chapters.
• Crisis Response for Southeast Minnesota (staffed 24/7): Call 844-274-7472.
• University of Minnesota Extension’s Live Healthy, Live Well program
• Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Farmer Assistance Network: Call toll-free at 877-898-MFAN (6326) or Twin Cities at 651-201-6327. The website also lists a farm and rural help line, 833-600-2670.