Going the distance

The high cost of worrying

By Edward T. Creagan, M.D. August 19, 2016

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A recent phone call from a friend and colleague was a real wake-up call. My colleague is a respected professor of medicine at a major medical center with a 50-percent commitment to seeing patients and a 50-percent commitment to research, which is funded by grants and contracts for which he competes on a national level. These funds support an armada of young scientists.

Recently there was a change in leadership in his department, and my colleague received a chilling email, not a phone call, from the new manager. It went something like this: "Budgetary concerns. Productivity being reevaluated. We need to talk. I'll set up meeting."

We've all gotten these sorts of messages and know they can be a real source of distraction. My friend connected with me on many occasions before the meeting, which was scheduled for three weeks after the email. As you can imagine, my friend was "catastrophizing" his situation.

He was assuming the worst, imagining all kinds of negative scenarios. Would the funding for his research lab be jeopardized? What would happen to the people who worked for him? Would he be expected to see more patients under increasingly difficult circumstances?

We occasionally exchanged phone calls, and these events were a source of major distraction. I knew the date of the meeting, and the evening before I reached out to my friend to wish him well and reassure him that whatever the outcome he still would be viewed with admiration and respect by his scientific community.

The day after the meeting, my friend called to tell me what had happened. The meeting was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. By 4:20 p.m., the manager had not appeared. Then at 4:30 p.m., my friend received a call from the delinquent manager who said that the meeting was canceled, explaining that the issue was not that important after all. There were no concerns with productivity or budget. This meeting was simply intended to be a collegial conversation about some relatively minor issues.

My colleague was of course relieved but also angry and dismayed that he had wasted so much emotional energy over a situation that was absolutely insignificant.

If only my friend had cultivated the gift of compartmentalizing. This means taking whatever you're worrying about and setting it aside. Picture yourself putting the problem in a shoebox, taping it up, putting it on a shelf and then walking away without looking back.

This can be very challenging to do, but the alternative is to allow yourself to worry, sometimes obsessively, about things you can't change. And this worrying has a cost. It drains your energy and takes a toll on your emotional and physical health.

The lesson is clear: Try to live in the present moment. Be anchored in the present. Be totally absorbed in the events in front of you and, within reason, put into little boxes those unpleasant events that rob you of your sense of wellbeing.

Originally published August 11, 2015.


Edward T. Creagan, M.D.

Follow on Twitter: @EdwardCreagan

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Aug. 19, 2016