If your hobby is spinning fretful fantasies of imminent disaster, give yourself a break. We've got the antidotes to your greatest fears and practical tools for unraveling those knots of unease.
The Worrier's Survival Kit
Illustration: Polly Becker
Have you spent too much of your life standing at the corner of worry and angst? You're not alone. I worry that I'm going to spend my golden years broke and living on a park bench, that the funky mole on my husband's back isn't really benign, as his doctor keeps insisting. I worry about climate change, genetically modified foods and BPA in plastics. I worry because yesterday I couldn't think of the word that means skiing on water. ("Waterskiing," my son helpfully supplied.)
There's evidence that many people have brains a bit like mine -- still abuzz in the wee hours with "What if... what if... no, seriously, what if... ?" Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In the age of information overload and up-to-the-second Twitter feeds, it's not surprising that we feel constantly on high alert, says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution. "The constant barrage of news gives us every little detail of every disaster. Even though there may be nothing dangerous in our immediate environment, we still feel like something bad could also happen to us at any moment," he says.
To further complicate matters, this stuff is supposed to give us the jitters. "We're wired to pay attention to things that are scary," says Martin Rossman, MD, author of The Worry Solution. "The number one function of our brain is to keep us alive, so we worry as a way to anticipate possible dangers and problem-solve our way through them. All of us come from vigilant ancestors -- if they hadn't been vigilant, they wouldn't have survived." Unfortunately, Rossman adds, we've gotten so good at worrying, we don't always know how to shut it off. The large-scale fears can get mixed in with the petty grievances, leaving us drowning in anxiety.
So how do you see your way clear? For starters, focus only on what you can control. "Instead of avoiding pain, uncertainty and heartbreak, we should embrace these emotions," says Steven Hayes, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. "They're fundamentally a part of what it means to be human."
-- Beth Levine
The Ticking Clock Syndrome
Illustration: Polly Becker
Ever experience waves of panic when you think about where your life should be? You should be engaged! You should be pregnant! You should be the boss by now! Social media doesn't help. A Facebook feed full of other people's promotions and adorable children can fuel your sense of falling behind and make you less appreciative of your own success. According to one 2013 study, users felt more envious and less satisfied with their lives after reading their friends' glowing status updates. And the more friends they had, the worse they felt.
The truth is, you're probably basing your expectations on an outdated model. "Baby boomers followed sequential personal timelines," says Robin Marantz Henig, coauthor of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? "Get married, buy a house, have a baby. Now it's culturally acceptable for milestones to happen later, in any kind of order. There's no 'right' age."
To free yourself from the compare-and-despair trap, try to harness your "onlyness," says Silicon Valley corporate director and speaker Nilofer Merchant: "Onlyness is the spot in the world only you inhabit -- a mix of the history, experiences and ideas that make up your life story. If you deny it by engaging in 'comparisonitis,' you'll miss your true value."
Next time a friend's progress gives you a pang of sadness, Merchant suggests asking yourself whether that's what you really want right now. If so, make an action plan: Start an online dating profile, sock away an extra $20 a week, ask for more responsibility at work. But also look at the whole picture: The friend who's expecting her second baby may be envious of your career success. And finally, don't underestimate the power of blooming late. George Eliot didn't publish a book until age 40; Jane Lynch got her first big prime-time role at 42. "There's no schedule," Merchant says. "Just admire your own kick-ass individuality."
-- Abbe Wright
Let's Talk About Sex
Illustration: Harriet Russell
Here's what the experts think about your sex life: "There isn't one standard," says Debra Herbenick, PhD, of the Kinsey Institute. "There are couples who have a ton of sex, couples who never have sex and couples everywhere in the middle. The most important thing is that you create the romantic life you want." Still not convinced? We tackle a few conundrums you might encounter at different stages of your sexual journey.
The Fear: "It's been less than a year, and the romance is drying up."
The Reality Check: "Marriage is one of the biggest commitments you'll ever make," says therapist Laura Berman, PhD, author ofIt's Not Him, It's You! "A little anxiety is to be expected, and it's normal to withdraw from your partner." She recommends easing back in with old-fashioned make-out sessions a few times a week. Kissing and cuddling -- which can decline in frequency as soon as a couple weds -- will help you remember what you loved about sex in the first place.
The Newly Single
The Fear: "The prospect of having sex with someone new terrifies me."
The Reality Check: Don't worry so much about future partners and what they might think of your thighs. Instead, focus on you and what makes you feel sexy and confident. "Buy lingerie you feel good in, go out with friends, flirt," says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD. And when you do meet someone, don't be afraid to confront your fears head-on: "Letting your partner know that you're nervous isn't a bad thing," says Saltz. "Besides, most men can't wait to tell you that they think you're sexy!"
The Fear: "I'm not as revved-up as I used to be, but I don't want my pilot light to go out for good."
The Reality Check: "Women may be surprised to learn that menopause isn't a death sentence for their sex drive," says Stacy Lindau, MD, director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine at the University of Chicago. A common culprit for a drop-off in libido is an undiagnosed medical condition, like heart disease or high blood pressure. Says Lindau, "Once women get those conditions treated, most see their sex drive shoot up."
-- Ashley Williams
What If I Lose My Job?!
Illustration: Harriet Russell
You can't control the job market, but you can shore up your future prospects by networking. If that very word gives you agita, fear not: The best strategies don't involve schmoozing at a conference.
-- Ashley Tate
Pay it forward. "Avoid thinking about networking as a transaction in which you're benefiting. Instead, try to give. One simple way: Stay on top of news and trends relating to your industry, and share interesting articles via e-mail or social media. Your contacts will see you as tapped in and insightful, and they'll consider you a valuable asset should an opportunity arise."
Show your support. "If you want to reengage with an old colleague or remind someone you exist, take a minute to endorse her skills on LinkedIn. (Just make sure they're skills you've actually witnessed on the job; otherwise it will seem arbitrary.) It's likely she'll return the favor, which may benefit you: Companies are starting to consider these endorsements when they recruit, seeking out people who have the highest number in a particular area."
-- William Arruda, personal branding expert
Don't forget your coworkers. "During a particularly busy period, like the midst of a campaign, I can't find much time to grab lunch with anybody. We can get so busy that we hardly remember to ask someone about her weekend or how her son is doing. So I focus on developing more meaningful relationships with my coworkers by carpooling or going for a drink after work. I know I can call on them in a few years if we cultivate that bond."
-- Patti Solis Doyle, political organizer and adviser to the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign
The "I'm A Fraud" Freakout
Illustration: Polly Becker
As you go about your daily life -- giving presentations, attending meetings, raising children -- are you secretly afraid everyone's about to find out you have no idea what you're doing? You have a bona fide case of impostor syndrome, and so do plenty of others: According to one estimate, about two out of three high achievers confess they've felt like phonies, despite their accomplishments. "The greater our success, the more we tend to feel like an impostor," says Pauline Clance, PhD, one of the psychologists who coined the term impostor phenomenon in 1978. "We attribute our achievements to luck or some mysterious fluke." We asked Clance and three other reformed "frauds" how to feel you've earned it.
Create a brag book. Jot down any positive feedback you receive -- from your boss, your sister, even your hairstylist. The exercise will feel goofy at first, but Clance says it's the best way to give yourself a concrete reference next time you're inclined to discount your strengths. "When I was starting out, I'd explain my success with the classic impostor line, 'I got here because I was in the right place at the right time,'" says Clance. "Once I started listing the praise I received, I realized chance had very little to do with it."
Be A mentor. Finding someone who looks up to you can help you realize just how much you have to offer—whether you're helping junior staffers at your company or young girls from a local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. "Mentoring was one of the best things I ever did," says Joyce Roché, author of The Empress Has No Clothes and former vice president of Avon. "Passing along your wisdom not only helps the next generation, it validates all the hard work you've done."
Don't spread bad press. "Years ago I signed a nondisclosure agreement with myself that any personal put-downs would stay between my ears," says Nancy Ancowitz, author of Self-Promotion for Introverts. "While a little self-deprecating humor never hurt anyone, if you speak confidently to others, you'll feel confident." Eventually.
Feel entitled. "I once read an article in which a prominent male television producer said he wouldn't feel bad if his project failed, because he was entitled to make a mistake," says Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. "That was an aha moment for me. I made a list of things I was entitled to do: I had the right to not know all the answers, the right to be on a learning curve, the right to be less than perfect. Once I permitted myself those mistakes, a huge weight was lifted."
The odds that the government is listening in on your calls or reading your e-mail are extremely low, says Bamford. In fact, he adds, the NSA isn't allowed to access the content of your communication unless it finds that you've been linked to one of the roughly 875,000 people in the government's worldwide terrorist database or that something in your communication has been flagged as highly suspicious. "There's a secret court making secret decisions regarding our privacy, and that's scary," says Bamford. "This is something you really have to pay attention to, and it should affect your political decisions, but it shouldn't stop you from picking up the phone or sending an e-mail."