Worrying about the future, in this economy, just makes you normal. But there are ways to get a grip on fear, instead of letting it control you.
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I can’t be the only one with this problem, so I’m curious to hear what you and your readers think about it. Right now, everything at work is going very well. I love my job, and I had an outstanding year-end performance review just a few weeks ago. But I still can’t shake an irrational feeling of impending doom. It’s probably because, before I got this job, I was laid off twice, once in late 2008, and again at a different company in 2010.
In both cases, my performance evaluations were great (just like now), so I guess I’m afraid it’s going to happen again. I’ve tried just brushing the fear aside and telling myself to stop worrying, but I’m having trouble sleeping, which is starting to affect my concentration during the day. Do you have any suggestions? — Nervous in New York
Dear Nervous: You’re right to suppose that you’re far from alone with this. (It’s no coincidence that sales of anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Zoloft have soared to new heights in the past couple of years.) David Kaiser, a career counselor who runs Chicago executive coaching firm Dark Matter Consulting, takes issue with your description of your sense of dread as “irrational.” “Considering that you lost two jobs in two years, it’s normal to be worried,” he says. “It’s completely understandable.”
Deborah Brown-Volkman, head of career coaching firm Surpass Your Dreams, Inc., in East Moriches, N.Y., agrees: “Career fear is normal. You wouldn’t be human without it.” She adds that many of her clients share your anxiety, but “they tell me they shouldn’t be afraid. I ask them why they would put so much pressure on themselves — to expect something that unrealistic. It’s much better to expect fear, so you can learn how to manage it.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that the job market is still so wobbly, with unemployment stuck at 7.9%. Hiring is slowly picking up, but the 157,000 new jobs created last month were accompanied by a steady drumbeat of layoff announcements — 24% more of them in January than in December, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Still, the trouble with letting even a well-founded worry get the best of you is that it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Lose enough sleep and suffer enough sweaty palms over time, and you’ll start making mistakes that could lead to the very outcome you’re dreading. Before things get that far, try these four steps:
1. Articulate exactly what you fear. “What you resist persists, so stop resisting,” suggests Brown-Volkman. “What are you afraid of? Write it down. Say it out loud.” Sounds simple, but, says David Kaiser, “Often just naming a fear makes it easier to deal with, because putting words to it gives it a shape” — turning an amorphous black cloud of worry into a specific problem (e.g., what happens if you lose this job?) so you can take practical action.
2. Make a Plan B. “Have a backup plan for what you’ll do if you do get laid off again,” Kaiser says. “Keep up your networking, and look around for stable or growing companies, or even other parts of your current company where there might be opportunities for you.”
The fact that you’ve survived two layoffs already could actually be an advantage, if you choose to see it that way, he adds: “You’ve landed on your feet twice before, so start doing what worked for you then.” You may never need your Plan B, but just knowing it’s there could go a long way toward stemming anxiety.
3. Take good care of your health. “Exercise often helps,” says Kaiser. “Anxiety comes from your head, but it affects your whole body. So get out of your head as much as possible. Stand up and move.” He also recommends stress relievers like meditation — “even just for 15 minutes on the train” — and spending more time with friends and family. “Connecting with people who care about you is calming.”
4. Start right now. “If you wait to be fear-free” before tackling the foregoing, Brown-Volkman says, “you will be waiting for a long time. Now is the moment to decide what control your fear will have over you — whether it will paralyze you or motivate you. Deciding is important, because it’s the step where you take your power back.”
Talkback: What helps you deal with career anxiety? Leave a comment below.