By: Paula Derrow
It can be tough to break free from a "What if?" way of thinking. But it is possible to work around your tendencies and adopt a serene state of mind. Just try these four easy strategies.
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.