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Your imagination is sometimes your worst enemy in the fight against workplace stress

At work, imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. It fuels innovation, but also produces the ability to imagine many situations and problems that don’t yet exist—and probably never will. How much of the stress people feel at work is directly due to imaginary scenarios? More than you think.

Many of the thoughts that run around in people’s heads go like this: “This is going to be a mess. I can just imagine how painful it will be too. Right, let’s consider how to deal with it. If that happens, I’ll do this. But if this other thing happens, then I could do that or that.” This isn’t planning, it’s anticipation of imaginary hurt, driven by anxiety and fear. Such thoughts stir up emotions that your mind treats as real, adding to your stress in advance of any genuine problems. You can, literally, worry yourself into burnout based on nothing but imagined difficulties.

How your fearful mind works

Suppose Jenny has her annual appraisal meeting next day—that pointless and destructive ritual so beloved by organizations who ought to know better. She’s feeling a nervous. Like most people, her work over the past year has been uneven: sometimes excellent, mostly acceptable, and occasionally downright bad. She also knows her next salary raise will depend on the overall rating her boss gives her.

As she lies awake that night, she’s thinking something like this: “If my boss brings up that time I had a row with Barry in Accounts, I’ll remind her that he started it. Besides, what he wanted to do was crazy; and everyone knows Barry’s a bully. I could always remind her how much work I won on the Edmonds account. That should be more than enough to offset the odd spat with some accounts nerd. . . . I’ll bet she’s forgotten the time I saved her bacon in the meeting with the COO. She never remembers anything that reflects badly on her, but I ought to get credit for that. . . . If she doesn’t bring it up, I will. Graham is always telling me I don’t stand up for myself enough. This time I’ll prove him wrong.” Every imagined situation feels real enough to bring up the feelings that would be there if it truly happened.

And so it goes: a series of possible events, followed by a rough outline of a response if that particular event occurs—plus all the feelings that go with it. It doesn’t even have to be something as important as an appraisal meeting.

Every day, millions of commuters drive into major cities, their heads spinning with an internal dialog on what they’ll do if the traffic’s snarled-up on Broadway, or the bridge is still closed, or those roadworks on Alvernon aren’t finished yet.

Maybe 40 or 50 percent of our thoughts in the course of a normal day are of the kind that uses imagination to anticipate a range of events and imagine how to deal with each one in turn. No wonder people say “I knew that would happen!” They didn’t know; it was just one of many scores—even hundreds —of potential outcomes they imagined before and fretted about to no purpose.

Your mind treats imaginary emotions as real ones

All this may sound normal and unimportant, but it isn’t. When you think this way, you prime your mind with synthetic emotions and pre-set responses—neither of which take any account of the circumstances you’ll actually find when action is needed. Worse, you’ll be stirring up real emotions, based on nothing more than your fears and insecurities. By rehearsing these dreamed-up feelings—and preparing a response based on them—you’re making yourself anxious now and readying yourself to say or do something that may be wildly inappropriate when the time comes.

Just like the situations your mind conjures up, these emotions are, strictly speaking, imaginary. They have no basis beyond your anxieties and fears. But your brain doesn’t recognize this. They’re completely real so far as your body and mind are concerned.

If you stir up fear, anger, or anxiety in this way, your body will respond by secreting the “fight or flight” chemicals that churn your stomach, raise your blood-pressure, and build harmful stress. By going over and over the situation again and again in your mind, constantly imagining what might happen and how you might respond, you keep those body chemicals flowing way longer than Nature ever intended. It’s a quick route to all the diseases that flow from chronic stress.

The way out

If you find this happening, here’s the way out:

  • Stop. Let go of all the imaginary scenarios and emotions. They won’t help deal with the problem and they’re hurting you into the bargain.
  • Take some quiet time to think about the real situation. Why are you anxious? Is there anything you can or should be doing about it now? If there is, do it. If not, forget about it until the time comes.
  • If you find yourself returning to the anticipation and worrying, note what’s going on in your head and let it go again. However often it comes back into your mind, simply note what’s happened and let it all go. Never mind if you have to do this 100 times or 1000. Let it go and move on to something else.
  • Patience is worth more than any number of pointless imaginings. If immediate action isn’t essential, do nothing until you’ve had quiet time to think.
  • Never act on emotion alone. When the time for action comes, be as objective as you can. Always try to get past any emotion to the reality.
  • Once there’s nothing more you can do, put the matter out of your mind. Whatever the outcome—good, bad, or anywhere in between—note it and let it go. It’s over. Learn what you can, then put it gently into the “file closed” part of your memory.
  • Never waste time going back over situations and imagining what you should have said or done. You didn’t. You can’t change anything by worrying or stirring up dead emotions.

If your head is full of imagined scenarios, options, and their attending emotions, there’ll be no room for reality. You won’t ever deal with the actual problems or people—just the stories you’ve made up about them in advance. Deal with problems when they happen, not when they’re mere imaginings. If you can act, act. If you can plan in a rational way for something likely to happen, do so. For the rest, let it all go. Ignore it. There’s true freedom from stress and inner peacefulness in that.

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Today’s world creates anxiety like never before. It’s time to fight back.

I have to start this article with a confession. For most of my life, I have been a world champion worrier. I was able to worry about almost anything. And, if I didn’t have anything specific to worry about, I would worry that I must have missed what I ought to be fretting over. The workplace, of course, provides an endless menu of possible sources of worry, which is why it’s often so stressful. Anxiety produces stress and stress produces anxiety. They feed off each other, making a perpetual motion machine of worrying. If anything good can come out of all that anxiety, it might be this: my experience-based ideas on how and why to quit worrying so much.

Most worriers believe that they either must worry (they have genuine reasons to do so), or that they cannot stop themselves, even if they see it doesn’t make sense. Let’s begin with understanding the causes of worry and whether it might be of some use. Until you are convinced that worrying is of no benefit to you, you won’t give it up anyway.

  • Worrying is a form of superstition. A great deal of worrying is driven by the unstated fear that, if you don’t worry about some issue, you’ll somehow be punished for your slipshod attitude; that some universal force will spot your dereliction of worrying duty and bring you back into line by making all the bad things happen. Of course, once you recognize that this kind of crazy, childish behavior lies behind much of the anxiety you’re plaguing yourself with, it’s tough to go on doing it without laughing.
  • Worrying is totally useless as a way to solve whatever the problem is. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich once said (not Kurt Vonnegut as I was told originally) “ . . . worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.”
  • Worrying takes a heap of energy. Despite being useless in any practical sense, worrying absorbs a great deal of mental and even physical energy. After a day spent worrying, you will be as tired as if you had tried to calculate the value of pi to 300 decimal places while running a marathon. And you will still have achieved nothing.
  • Worrying is amazingly distracting. While you are worrying, your mind cannot settle on anything else. The worrying constantly gets in the way of whatever you try to do. People tell you things—sometimes important things. You don’t hear them or you forget them within seconds, because your mind is totally taken up with that wretched source of anxiety.

If you’re now convinced that worrying offers no benefits and considerable drawbacks, let’s consider some ways to give it up.

  • Don’t accept that you are helpless. I won’t say it will be easy to give it up, but worrying is just a habit. Perhaps it would be better to call it an addiction. Like all addictions, it’s going to be tough to quit, but you can do it. There will likely be some “cold turkey” to get through, but just think about all that extra energy and enjoyment of life that you’ll have once you’re no longer a slave to continual anxieties.
  • Practice letting go. Worrying is all about control. People worry because something is threatening to happen that they don’t like. If they can do something to stop it happening they will. There’s no cause to worry then, it’s over. But, in all too many cases, we aren’t able to stop whatever it is threatening us: we aren’t able to be in control. So we worry instead. It’s a form of quasi-control. By worrying about whatever it is, we imagine all the ways we would control it, if only we could. The more you are able to accept things the way they are, the less you will worry. No one ever worried about anything they simply accepted. And accepting whatever it is will probably be the best way to start responding to it positively as well, so you’ll get a double benefit.
  • Most worries are totally imaginary. We can all imagine truly terrible outcomes. They rarely happen. One way to curb your worries is to sit down and deliberately imagine the very worst that your mind can come up with. Two things will likely result: you’ll realize how ridiculous the whole thing is; and everything else will seem pretty tame by comparison.
  • Worries don’t exist. So you don’t need to waste time over them. It’s obvious. If a problem exists, it isn’t a worry, it’s a fact. You have to cope with it some way and that becomes an exercise in problem-solving, not worrying. Worries are always about what may happen, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, they don’t exist. When, and if, they do, they’ll be problems to be solved. Until then, they are nothing but rogue neurons in your brain.
  • Try planning instead. Planning is considering what might reasonably happen and getting yourself ready. It’s practical and useful. Even if events don’t work out that way, you will probably have learned something useful in the process. Worrying is imagining what will almost certainly never happen, and then imagining how you would fail to deal with that imaginary outcome.
  • Never feel guilty about not worrying. Not only is guilt a totally useless and entirely negative emotion, but you have nothing whatever to feel guilty about. To feel guilty about not worrying is like berating yourself for not thinking about ten yellow goldfishes balancing on the nose of an alligator. Both are simply thoughts, and ridiculous ones too. Why should you feel guilty about not thinking them?
  • Don’t think too much about what other people have achieved. It will only make you feel dissatisfied and start you worrying again. At least 50% of the good things that happen to people is pure chance; the rest is a mixture of solid effort and unexpectedly good outcomes from what began as mistakes. Do what you do and be happy.
  • If you start to take yourself seriously, take two aspirin and lie down in a darkened room until the fit passes. What do you know about yourself for certain? Most of your ideas don’t work, most of your hopes and plans fail, most of your triumphs were luck, and most of your choices were either made for you by others or happened by default. And you take a person like that seriously? All that stuff is just to impress other people, right? There was an old saying that went: “No one is a hero to his valet.” Hardly anyone has a valet nowadays, but you get my drift.

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