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Learning to stress relaxation

I went on vacation last week, and as I was preparing to leave town, I couldn’t help but feel worried.

I had tons of packing to do, and the list of loose ends to tie before I boarded my flight for New York kept growing as it scrolled through my mind two days before I left.

“This is why I need a vacation,” I told myself. “When I get to New York, I can just relax.”

But as soon as I said it in my mind, I knew it was a lie. When I got to New York, I would find new things to worry about, such as getting a cab to the friend’s house where I was staying and catching the bus a few days later to stay with someone else in a different state. Then I had to worry about packing up and coming home again.

I like to tell myself I’ll have vacations or pockets of time in my schedule when my worries will subside, and if I can just bury my head in worry for awhile and get to those times, I can come up for air and relax a bit.

But as much as I’d like to think a more carefree life is only an airport check (or a paycheck) away, it seems that worry is a fact of life, and I need to find a way to cope with it.

So I was reading an article on The Huffington Post about the habits of people who manage worry well, hoping that some of the suggestions from these wise souls would leak into my life through a process of visual osmosis.

The list started with some of what you might expect. People who worry less are better at focusing on the present moment, and they practice mindfulness to stay in the now instead of thinking about the later.

Everyone worries, but people who let their worries get the better of them tend to think they are doing something constructive by worrying, said Christine Purdon, a licensed psychologist, professor and executive director of the Centre for Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Those people call it planning, and they use it to guard against a list of potential bad outcomes in their lives, Purdon said.

But instead of actually solving any problems with their plans, chronic worriers just end up thinking about more potential problems and distressing themselves.

“They can’t stop themselves once they get started,” Purdon said.

Along with over-anticipating the future, worriers also underestimate their own ability to cope with what could go wrong on the fly.

“Non-worriers, on the other hand, possess the confidence that if something were to happen, they’ll just ... handle it,” the article said.

The reason worrying is more harmful than helpful is that most of the time we don’t know what we need to worry about until it happens. Things don’t always work in the ways we expect – for better or worse – and the plans we worked so hard to make are often rendered useless.

After worrying and planning all day about how I would pack for my vacation, I came home from work that night and found my house dripping from the second-story bathroom to the basement because of plumbing issues. Most of our cabinets were full of water, and everything in them was dirty – not to mention the mess on the floor.

My roommate and I spent the entire night drying our cabinets and floors, cleaning them and drying them again. We ran more loads of dishes that night than many people with dishwashers run in a week.

But despite the stress and anger that could have ensued, we were both in a strangely good mood because there was nothing else we could do. We didn’t anticipate the situation. But we dealt with it when it happened, and instead of allowing it to spoil our night, we ordered a pizza and had some fun.

At the end of the day, I realized the biggest reason not to overworry is that the moments we worry about and plan for are a small portion of our lives. We don’t live in the carefully calculated vacation moments. We live in the times in between when toilet water is dripping from the ceiling and our plans go out the window.

If we allow our worries to invade these everyday moments, we miss our chance to make the most of the mess.

Kara Hackett is social media writer for The Journal Gazette. To see more of her work throughout the week and participate in the conversation, go to www.journalgazette.net/coffeebreak, where this column first appeared.

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