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An excerpt from
The Confidence Course
by Walter Anderson
HarperCollins, 1998, trade paperback. All rights reserved.

Chapter Three—How to Worry Well

At the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the 1950s, a laboratory experiment that is a classic in behavioral research, was conducted using eight rhesus monkeys. The eight were divided into pairs. Each pair received periodic electric shocks, but one monkey in each pair was able when a light flashed on to prevent itself from being shocked by pressing a lever. The other monkey in each pair could not prevent itself from being shocked. The shocks continued regularly over some weeks. Four of the eight monkeys developed terrible stomach lesions and ulcers, and they died. The others showed no similar symptoms. Which monkeys got sick? The answer may surprise you. It was the four monkeys who were able to prevent electric shocks to themselves who got the ulcers and died.

Many Americans early in their lives acquire a contagious, crippling disease of inestimable pain—an illness of such potential severity that literally thousands upon thousands take their lives rather than try to find its cure. This dread disease is worry. It touches everyone.

How has it affected you?

It has made me miserable. Very little that I've done in my life has been so damaging and painful to me as my worrying about things that might happen. When I was a young adult, I thought that the people I admired somehow didn't worry as I did. So, because I was foolish enough to believe that the strong and the successful didn't worry, I pretended not to. I acted unconcerned. I might just as well have tried to cap a volcano. I was convinced that worrying was negative, unique to losers, and a sure sign of failure. What a stubborn mule I can be! There was no single enlightening event, no epiphany, no turning point for me. Instead, it took many years and scores of experiences, needless discomfort, and torment before I realized how wrong I was.

Because of my life's work as an editor and an author, I have had the wonderful opportunity to come to know many successful people, the very people I thought didn't worry as I did. Hundreds of times I've found myself looking into their eyes and asking the question that has caused me more worry than any other, the question that has haunted me since I was a teenager: "When it is dark and you are alone, do you ever say to yourself, 'What will I do when they find out I'm me?' "

Now here's the thing: I've never failed to make a friend with that question. And I've never failed to get a nod. It was as if I knew who they were. I understood. And because I understood, I could be trusted. I've seen it melt the cool, disciplined, practiced composure of some of the planet's most prominent leaders—and that includes executives in charge of global companies, respected clergy, scientists, educators, entertainers, authors, artists, and athletes.

I discovered that they were like the rest of us. They were like me! And what was it I had been afraid—and in many ways still am—that others might discover?


I'm afraid that I am inferior.
I'm afraid that I am vulnerable.
I'm afraid that I deserve to be rejected.

How about you? When it's dark and you're alone in your most troubled moments, do you worry that someone will find out that you're not quite good enough, that you can be hurt, that maybe you don't belong? If so, read on. Your fears, my fears, are shared by millions of sane people. We are not alone. If the truth be told, it is we who are the majority, and it is we who are normal. In fact, fear itself, once you understand it, can be okay. It can save your life.

Fear, though, is not anxiety. Anxiety is something else—and, for our confidence to grow, we need to clearly understand the difference between the two.

Fear is what kept our primitive ancestors alive in a hostile world. They had no time to wonder or ponder. Then, had a minute, maybe two, to make the life-or-death choice: "Should we fight or should we run?" Adrenaline flooded their bloodstreams, adding speed, energy, and strength. Their veins and arteries constricted simultaneously to slow the bleeding if they were wounded. Their pulses quickened, their bodily defenses stiffened. This physical response to a clear and present danger was fear—the same fear we depend on to save our own lives.

Today, most of what we call "fear" is something else. It is anxiety, a response not to danger itself but to anticipated danger. The cave dweller was rightly concerned about being some creature's breakfast on the spot. What he felt was real fear. When we worry about something that might happen later—when we say, "I just know I'm going to fail!"—that's anxiety. When the brakes in your car stop working on a hill, what you feel is fear. When you worry over what you'll say at a meeting next Tuesday, that's anxiety—and anxiety is a lot more agonizing than fear.

Fear usually ends with the event: The car stops, the fear is over.

Anxiety, on the other hand, can be endless.

Why do I emphasize the distinction?

I do because your body often does not.

Have you ever noticed how your body reacts when you're anxious? Quickened pulse. Sweaty palms. Dry throat, just as if you were face-to-face with a creature who wanted to gobble you up for breakfast! Anxiety is so frustrating: all that energy, and nothing to do with it. You can't run or fight, because there's nothing to run from, nothing to fight. You sit with a knot in you stomach, anticipating danger.

From our own life experiences, as well as studies like the one with the rhesus monkeys at the Walter Reed Army Institute, we know that anxiety can produce symptoms of incapacitation or even death. On the other hand, we know that anxiety—as a real source of energy—can, when properly directed, help us to live better.

What I did not understand when I was younger was that worry, whether prompted by fear or anxiety, is an expression of nervous energy and, as such, is potentially helpful, healthy, and good. The greatest heroes, the most successful and triumphant people, worry. The difference is that they do something about it: They worry well.

Can I learn to do that?

Yes—and you'll learn more quickly if you keep in mind that it's only when our imagination fires blanks, when we exaggerate our fears, that worrying is unhealthy: "I started school Monday; no one will like me." "Thank you for the opportunity: I know I will fail." I have imagined such outrageous consequences of everyday concerns (well, they could occur), and I now blush when I recall them. Not satisfied with merely sneaking into my son's bedroom when he was an infant to make sure he was breathing, sometimes I'd pinch him and tell my wife, "Honey, Eric's awake!"

To keep our worrying healthy in other words, to worry well—we must learn to direct into productive channels the energy that fear and anxiety provide. That's accomplished in two steps:


  1. Understand what you fear.
    More often than not, most of our worries begin to disappear when we analyze them—because it's hard to go on worrying when we begin to examine what troubles us, when we see our worries in context: "I can't sleep at night. I'm so terrified of failing the final exam Wednesday morning." Well, what's the worst thing that can happen? I mean the worst. You might also ask yourself: "Why do I think I may fail? Is there something obvious I can do to pass? Is this the first time I've had a similar concern?"

  2. Take action.
    Nothing quells anxiety faster than action. Once we thoroughly examine our concerns, more often than not we find out what to do: "What can I do now to prepare for the future?" Often it takes a practical effort, like studying for an exam rather than worrying about it.


Do this experiment for a month.

It's an exercise that has worked wonders for me and nearly all of my students: Keep a diary and write down what worries you when it worries you. Whatever the worry, however small or large, log it. Every time you have a concern—even when it may seem like only seconds since the last one write it down. If you have the same concern repeatedly, write it down repeatedly.

Share the results with no one. In every other aspect of The Confidence Course —including the first two challenges—I would encourage you, if you find it helpful, to discuss with others what you're learning. This exercise is the exception; this one you must live alone. If, after thirty days, you want to talk about it with friends, fine. But not before.

You may become as excited as others who've worked at this assignment in The Confidence Course because of what you'll discover fairly quickly—and, like many of them, you may find it equally hard to resist sharing the findings. Hang tough. Also, as I said, you'll begin to see results soon, and thus you may be tempted to cut the exercise short as insights emerge. Don't.

Do the entire month. I pledge to you that this exercise alone, when done with diligence and in silence, is worth it.

© 1998 Walter Anderson. All rights reserved.

Read Chapter One| Chapter Three | Chapter Thirteen

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