Do you worry a lot? I know I can get totally sucked into worry. It drains my time and energy and most of the stuff I worry about doesn’t even happen. If you’re a worrier too, this article is for you.
According to several sources, roughly a third of us worry a LOT. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re in the worry group with me. Worrying, like so many other thought patterns, can be a habit – which can be changed.
It turns out that the opposite of worrying isn’t not worrying. Trying to not worry only reinforces the worrying thoughts and makes them stick in your mind more. To counteract worry we must practice mindfulness.
Because worry affects us in so many ways (physical, mental, emotional) it is important for us to be aware of how we feel when we’re in a worry state. This helps you become aware of your triggers, to catch it before it gets a foothold, and to free yourself more quickly from the downward spiral it causes.
Below are 8 ways to help you deal with your worry. Some of these things will also help with panic or anxiety attacks. Worry starts in the brain and affects the body. Anxiety starts in the body and affects the brain. Either way the results can be much the same.
By getting clear on what’s going on with your mind and body in those moments when you are not OK, you’re able to be more self aware and to take control of your runaway train brain before it runs off the tracks.
DON’T FIGHT THE WORRY
When you tell a friend that you’re nervous or worried about a certain outcome, what’s one of the first things they say?
“Don’t worry! It’ll be fine”
Well thanks, Karen, but it doesn’t work that way. Telling yourself (or others) not to worry is about efficient as telling them not to think about a white bear. How many seconds before a polar bear popped into your head?
Our brains don’t not think about things. In order to not think about something, you have to have some awareness of it – which means it’s always there sitting on the sidelines. Our goal is not to put worry on the sidelines where it can jump in the game whenever it wants. It’s to stop caring where it is, so it gets lost in the crowd.
The other problem with pushing worry – and any other thoughts – away is that by doing so we seem to give them power. When the thoughts do come back, they come back stronger, and with more stickiness, as psychologists say. So not only are the thoughts stronger because we tried to ignore them, this time they’re even harder to push away than the last time.
Definitely not our goal.
ACCEPT THE WORRY
I don’t mean this in the sense that you should accept worry as part of your life and give up. Quite the contrary.
But the thing about dealing with any sort of mental health issue is that we must first accept what’s happening. In fact if you look at the stages of grief, the last one is acceptance. Except that that’s not the end of the grief, that’s just when you are able to work on the grief and start healing from it.
The same is true here with the worry.
You can try to deny it or ignore it – but as we established above, that will only give it more power.
Instead you need accept that you have worries and that will allow you to examine them.
Notice that I didn’t say that you are worried. Removing yourself from your situation is one of the first steps to being able to acknowledge it.
We have a tendency to believe that we are our thoughts.
I am worried. I am depressed. I am anxious.
This is identifying as your disorder or issue. Doing this makes it even harder for you to separate yourself from your thoughts. And getting this separation is key to being able to acknowledge the thoughts as just thoughts, so you can deal with feelings they cause.
So the next time you find yourself worrying, take a step back. Say to yourself that these thoughts are worries. Acknowledge them without buying into the bullshit story they’re telling you. And then refocus your attention elsewhere.
I’m not going to lie to you – this is going to be the hardest step. And it’s also going to be the most critical.
Since battling with the thoughts doesn’t work, we must redirect. And redirect in a healthy way.
To be clear, hiding or running away from the worry via bingeing (on food or alcohol or Netflix) or any other unhealthy coping mechanism is going to have the same backfire results as trying to push them out of your brain.
Once you’ve acknowledged that you have worries and you’ve accepted them for what they are – passing thoughts – then you can redirect your thinking to something else.
One of the best ways to do this is through mindfulness. Become acutely aware of your surroundings. If you’re standing how do your feet and legs feel, if you’re sitting, what is that surface like? What do you see or hear or smell? If there are other people around you really look at them. If you’re in nature take in as much of it as possible.
This works because when we worry we are too much in our heads. We spend all our time and energy on our worries and miss everything that’s going on around us. This mindfulness flips the equation and brings you out of your mind into the world and puts the worry in the background.
If the worry has had a hold of you for awhile and has gotten into your body (sweaty palms, racing or pounding heart, lightheadedness) or it started in your body as an anxiety attack that sent you into worry – you might need to do some breathing first.
My personal favorite way to get control of my physical symptoms is box breathing. The reason being that I don’t have to think about what I need to do – because if we’re being honest, when I’m in the middle of physical symptoms I can’t think about what to do.
Box breathing is simply:
Inhale for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Exhale for 4 seconds
Wait for 4 seconds
I find focusing on the exhale to be useful. If you push out the air like you’re blowing out candles, then your lungs will refill more on the next inhale. This helps you kick the shallow breath that comes from the worry or anxiety.
Try it the next time you feel your body start to freak out. If it doesn’t work for you, there’s about a thousand other ways to use your breath to control your mind. Keep testing until you find something that works.
Once you have control of your physical symptoms to the point where you can think, start doing the mindfulness exercise. This will further calm you down and allow you to let go of the worry.
THE EMOTIONS OF WORRY
Let’s face it, worry is a favorite pastime for some of us.
Have a moment to think? Worry. Have some free time on your hands? Worry.
Don’t want to be doing what you’re working on? Worry about something else you need to work on.
We worry about the things we can control and we worry even more about the things we can’t control. Because at least if we’re worrying we’re doing something.
This is how worry can become a habit. It becomes a sort of default way of thinking. Any free mental space gets filled up with worry.
And I don’t know about you, but any time I’m feeling in a negative mood I end up worrying. I will literally feel grumpy or depressed, forget what I was so upset about, and instead of letting it go, I will fill the void with worry.
In this way our emotions can cause us to worry or our worry can cause negative emotions.
But emotions are transitive. They come and go with time. Sadness, anger, grouchiness all suck big time, but they will eventually pass. However we can cause them to hang around longer by swimming around in them the way we do when we worry.
Use the same concept on these emotions as you do with the worry thoughts. Notice them. Acknowledge them. Label them.
The labeling is the key here. Try to be specific with your labels. Are you just angry or are you hurt and frustrated? By thinking about the emotions in this way you give yourself the same distance as you did with your thoughts.
Once you get the distance do your best to just sit with it and know it will pass. If you have any favorite self care practices, this is a good time to go do them. You can’t force emotions to go away, but you can certainly do things to help bring better emotions to pass.
While the above has been about how to deal with the worry when you’re in the moment, below are tips to change being a worrier. We have to both learn to deal with it when it comes and learn to break the habits that cause the worry to begin with. Below are some methods to do just that.
Set aside a worry time
I’m going to admit when I first read this I thought it was cray cray. Initially it sounds like a solid way to create a worry habit. But consider this tip – there’s science here.
Worrying is never ending. It can fill your entire life up if you let it. Which is why this method works.
Set aside 30 minutes a day to worry. Any time that worries crop up throughout your day stop and tell yourself you will worry about that at the appropriate time. Then when you’re time comes, set a timer for 30 minutes and worry away. As soon as that timer goes off, though, you’re done until tomorrow.
If it helps you can keep a worry journal with you. This is where you can put worries that come up during the day so you don’t forget them (because seriously I can’t be the only one that would worry I would forget my worry and not get a chance to worry about it!). It can also be a place where you can write during your worry time.
This has been shown to help people control the amount of time they spend worrying a day and can also lead to more productive worrying. Where you’re actively working on solutions rather than ruminating about how life sucks.
We don’t like to admit it, but we don’t have as much control of our lives as we’d like to believe. We might put every ounce of effort we have into an endeavor, but likely at some point, we won’t have control over whether it works or not. You can make a kick ass product, but you can’t force people to buy it. You can oversee your child’s entire education, but you can’t make them get good grades. You can love the hell out of someone, but you can’t control their actions.
Such is life.
While you can’t control what thoughts come into your head, you can control your reaction to them. And there are going to be some situations where you can make a decision that will change the outcome.
When you’re considering something you’re worrying about think about whether you can actually do anything to help it. If you can either decide to do it or decide not to. Living in indecision is the same as not doing something, but it’s far more stressful.
And if there’s nothing you can do about it, is there any sense in worrying? Instead of worrying about the situation consider what the possible outcomes are. How might you deal with those things? Realizing that you will manage to go on regardless of the outcome will help you release the worry around that situation.
Notice what happens before the worry
Figuring out our triggers is one big way to stop a habit. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to eliminate the trigger (like biting your nails when you’re nervous – it’s impossible to never be nervous), but there are going to be some places where you can try to eliminate the trigger.
For example, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about being late. Many of us who have ADHD and/or kids are late on the regular.
In order to avoid this trigger I have learned to build extra time into every time we ramp up to get out the door. If it should take us 20 minutes to get there and 10 minutes to get ready, I plan for 30 minutes to get there and 15 minutes to get ready.
While this seems like I should have a ton of extra time sitting around waiting for things to start, we usually just make it – because, well, kids. What it does do is saves me from spending the entire car ride freaking out about being late.
If you find yourself always worrying at a certain time of day or in a certain environment – there are triggers here. Consider what you can do to minimize and compensate for them. And then practice all the mindfulness and breathing tricks above to help you diffuse the worry.
Create a stress management plan
Worry causes stress. And I can’t be the only one that gets stressed about how much worrying stresses me out.
Because of this it’s critical to have a stress management program. If you need some help figuring this out check out this post and this one.
One of the keys will not only be adding some new activities to your day, but also steering away from the negative coping mechanisms that you’ve developed. You probably already know what they are, so whenever you feel drawn to them, try to backfill that space with something healthier instead.
Productive worrying – where you’re problem solving – can be a good thing, but most of us get sucked into the never ending what-ifs of situations we can’t control. Using mindfulness, breathing, and these other simple tips can help you get control of your worry before it takes over your life.
If you’re struggling with any of these methods or with moving your life forward, feel free to contact me. Coaching is a great way to learn how to prioritize your thoughts so you can deal with them.