Life at Work

A Good Case of Nerves Beats Being Worried Sick

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

My friends and I lean on one another to ease our worries, whether over dinner, e-mail or a weekend away. But no matter where we are or what we're doing, we worry.

One friend is an uber-worrier. She even worries that she worries too much. She recently had a work issue she needed to iron out. She fretted about it. She discussed with friends and her husband what she would say. And as soon as she and her boss finished their conversation Monday, she called me to say the issue was under control.

My friend, who is too worried that her co-workers might recognize her to let me use her name or mention what her work issue is, worries herself through challenges.

"I get a knot in my stomach. I have trouble focusing on anything else until it's done. I think about it and think about it," she said. She practices what she will say to her boss and edits any e-mails she might send. She also asks others to read the e-mails (ahem) before she sends them.

"It's stifling for sure," my pal said of her worrying. But that worrying gets her through a situation with aplomb. Never is there a mistake in her e-mails. She is prepared for the what-ifs of any conversation.

Without realizing it, my dear friend worries well. Worries can work for us as long as they don't grab us by the throat and paralyze us from ever making any decisions.

"Worry is normal," said Holly Hazlett-Stevens, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Reno. She is also the author of "Women Who Worry Too Much." (And judging by people who spoke to me for this column, there are a lot of us!) "It comes from our natural adaptive ability where we can anticipate things that we might want to take action to prevent."

In a work situation, that is actually a useful skill. Worrying can help us see things coming, and if that leads us to act, the worrying can be productive, she said. I know what you're thinking, though. Your worrying isn't so productive. I and my sheep-counting know all about it.

"I spent 10 years in a toxic environment and now I find that I'm a terrible worrier. I'm afraid that anybody I work for or with will go off on me at any time," wrote a woman from Alexandria who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is looking for a new job. She is afraid she will end up in another tough environment.

Companies realize that work is fraught with worry, and many are trying to do something about it: More than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 firms provide employee assistance programs, which often offer free counseling services and stress seminars. About 50 percent of small and mid-size companies provide such programs, according to ComPsych Corp., a Chicago employee assistance management company.

"The number is growing as these companies also realize keeping employees productive and focused is of the utmost importance," said Richard A. Chaifetz, ComPsych's chief executive.

We lose our focus when worrying becomes counterproductive, such as when we start to worry about vague things that can't be immediately solved, Hazlett-Stevens said. (See also: My boss looked at me weird today. I think he hates me.)

So what to do when the worries won't let go?

For starters, Hazlett-Stevens said, when those counterproductive worries start to creep up, stop and ask yourself if there is anything you can do about it right then and there. "If there is no action you can take, postpone it to a worry period," she said. "Promise yourself to look at it more carefully at a time when the worry won't interfere with what you're trying to do at this moment."

According to a Pennsylvania State University study Hazlett-Stevens worked on, even people with worst-case-scenario tendencies fared well in reality. The study monitored what people with anxiety disorders worried about and how they coped if the worst happened. The study found only 15 percent of the things the subjects worried about really did turn out badly. Of those bad things, the people coped better than they feared in 79 percent of the cases.

Dee Bringle, manager of human resource administration with a major studio in Burbank, Calif., used to be a constant worrier. But she learned over the years that even if people were telling her that the sky was falling, it probably wasn't. The more she understood that worrying would get her nowhere if there was nothing she could do about it, the happier she was. Recently, her boss even asked her why she wasn't reacting to another frazzle-inducing situation. "I said, 'I've handled it to the best of my ability. So why take it home and brood?' " she said.

Last fall, her studio laid off a lot of people. She was becoming unpleasant, and friends were getting tired of her constant complaining and worrying. She realized she was spending all of her time worrying about work and knew there was more to life than that. She discovered she needed to have confidence in her own ability. She knew her job and did it well. She put herself on the line only after she really did the best she could, and she always made sure to do due diligence on all of her work. When she let herself understand that, she was able to sleep at night.

"A lot of the worrying comes from setting expectations in your own mind," she said. And when she stopped constantly worrying, her life suddenly seemed much easier. "The roof didn't cave in."

You can e-mail Amy Joyce Join her from 11 a.m. to noon Aug. 1 to discuss your life at work at

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