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'Wait To Worry' About Challenges

MICHEL MARTIN: As we've just heard, being fired or losing your job is something that a lot of people have had to worry about in recent years. But our next guest has some advice for those of us who tend to worry a lot about life's what-ifs. That advice is to wait. Columnist Steven Petrow recently wrote about his epiphany and learning how to wait to worry for The Washington Post. In the piece, he talked about how he decided to stop worrying about stuff that hadn't even happened yet. Steven Petrow is with us now. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

STEVEN PETROW: Michel, it's great to be with you again.

MARTIN: How did you start thinking about this?

PETROW: Well, it was a long time ago. And I want to say right at the outset, this wasn't an easy thing for me to learn how to wait to worry. I think I was born with the neurotic anxiety gene, and, you know, it had plagued me a long time. But where it first started was when I saw my grandmother, who was then in her mid-80s, living in a second-floor walk up in Queens, New York. And my father just became obsessed with the idea that she would become a prisoner in this apartment, at some point when something happened to her.

And I kept saying to dad, we don't know what's going to happen. So many other things could happen other than her becoming, you know, handicapped and not being able to go up those steps. And the way it played out was she had a different disease. She was hospitalized for the last year of her life, and she got to come home one more time before she died. And she died in her bed. And there I really learned that there would have been no point in worrying the way that my dad did because you can't predict what is going to happen in life.

MARTIN: Did he worry about a lot of things, or was this just one of the things that he was on this particular worry?

PETROW: It was one of those openings for me, you know, how with your parents you sort of get to know them as you become an adult. So I think that he was a worrier all along, but it really kind of crystallized it for me at that point. And I've seen it since then, especially as he and my mom have gotten older. And we've had this conversation, and we've had the wait to worry conversation, which sometimes he and others think wrongfully means, you know, put your head in the sand. Don't make a plan. And that is really not what I did, nor what I mean.

I think you do have to be aware of what's happening, understand that life can be unpredictable. You know, I have been laid off in my life several times, and so I keep, you know, my bank account, you know, with a minimum amount of cash in case that happens again. You know, I'm not overly worried about it. But I do have a plan in that way. And so I've taken this philosophy a little bit from the health situation to other parts of my life and talk about it that way to others as well.

MARTIN: Stop it. Stop for a second there and tell us about the health situation. You were saying in the column - in fact people who follow your work know that you've written about this before - that you were dealt a blow that a lot of people have had - that you've had to deal with cancer and that you kind of came to this realization about waiting to worry while you were being treated. Talk about that, if you would.

PETROW: Well, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26, and this was 30 years ago this spring. So in part this essay is kind of born of looking back over those decades and saying to myself, what did I learn? Hopefully, did I learn something? And I do love this quote from the Narnia chronicles which says, you must go a little way from here and then turn around and look back, and then at last the true landscape will become visible. And so I think it's only looking back now, that I'm able to really see properly.

But I got to the two year mark, where I was then supposedly actually cured. And then I started worrying massively. Would I relapse and turn to some of the standbys that I had - that I knew as a young man, which were drinking and drugs and prescription drugs? And they didn't really work for me. And I had a very good friend of the family who had been through something similar and had been diagnosed with cancer. And she just said it to me for the first time when I was whining and complaining and being self-involved. She said, Steven, wait to worry, you can't worry about the things that you don't know. Worry about what's on your plate today. But enjoy this life. You've got a great, new second chapter, and Marion (ph) was right.

MARTIN: How do you wait to worry?

PETROW: Well...

MARTIN: How do you implement that, especially if you're worrier?

PETROW: (Laughing) So - and I'm going to speak from my own experience which echoes some others - but, you know, drugs and alcohol are probably not great, great tools. And I'm not advocating them.

MARTIN: OK, I'll write that down. Lose the drugs and alcohol, or at least let that not be the default.

PETROW: One of the things that Marion suggested to me - and this, mind you, was in 1984 - and that was visualization, guided imagery, which is a process of teaching your mind, your brain to control the rest of you. And I would do - I would lay on my back, and I would start this kind of mantra that was really about slowing down the breath and some sort of self-mastery of, like, the control system, the physiological stuff. And by learning how to do that, I was able to feel more in control. And therefore, part of that control for me was saying, I'm not going to worry. I'm not going to let that overtake me in the same way. That shallow breathing, you know, is not going to choke and consume me.

MARTIN: You remind me of an old editor of mine who would say, when we had a big news story that was consuming a lot of our attention and people were kind of reporting back in with their various pieces of the story, you know, and people started getting a little agitated, he'd say well, don't panic. It's too late to panic, you know.


PETROW: Panic earlier, right?

MARTIN: That's right. Panic earlier. Get it out of the way. So, Steven, for people who want to start your kind of wait to worry mantra and start by make it their mantra, what - how do you get started? What's the first thing you should do today, if you say - you know what? - today's the day I'm going to implement this? What should I do first?

PETROW: I think that's a really great question, Michel, and the first thing I would suggest is look at what you're worrying about. Try to understand what's probable and what's possible or what's not even likely. And, you know, if there's some probability that something is going to happen - let's say that you feel that you're going to lose your job - well, worrying is fine and also is, you know, preparing a resume and getting hooked up on LinkedIn and doing those things.

But if you put other elements in the, not likely to happen, just try to take them off your plate and fill that space in your mind and your heart with - you know, with the positive things. And I don't mean to sound like, you know, some California guru 'cause, here I am in North Carolina. I'm not a California guru. But I think that we can make these conscious decisions and try to put things to the side so that we really can live full lives in our present state.

MARTIN: Steven Petrow is an etiquette columnist. His latest piece for The Washington Post is titled "He Found The Best Anti-Anxiety Drug Was Guided Imagery And Learning To Wait To Worry." We caught up with him at member station WUNC, which is in Durham, North Carolina. Steven Petrow, thanks for speaking with us once again.

PETROW: Michel, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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