“That the birds of worry and care fly over you head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” – Chinese Proverb
Worry can be useful when it is experienced in the form of eustress, motivating you to take important actions or solve problems in your life. Many people are more familiar with the experience of worry as distress, leading to paralyzing self-doubts or persistent thoughts about how things could go horribly wrong. If you notice that a pattern of worry is interfering with living a meaningful and balanced life, this may be a strong signal from within that it is time to take proactive steps toward jumping off the hamster wheel of perpetual worry.
Fortunately, there are effective tools for identifying, understanding, and breaking free from chronic worrying. As with the acquisition of any new tool, competence requires your willingness to invest some time and energy. When persistent worry begins to take over your life or interfere with reaching your valued goals, the benefits of freeing your heart and mind far outweigh the time it may take to develop a new relationship with your experience of worry.
It is generally quite difficult to simply stop anxious thoughts from swirling, floating, or racing around in your mind. If you have ever experienced persistent worry and found yourself starting to “worry about your worrying,” you can understand how anxious thoughts can create a positive feedback loop. This essentially means the feedback you are receiving in the form of anxiety symptoms (fear, trouble concentrating, restlessness, breathing quickly, racing pulse, etc.) amplifies (by excessive worrying about the symptoms) the output signal (increased anxiety). This is precisely the cycle of anxiety, worry, and fear that you can break.
Learn to Postpone Worrying
Postponing worrying is different from telling yourself to “just stop worrying.” This approach involves a mindful attitude of openness, acceptance, and nonjudgment. What might it be like to give yourself permission to have those worrisome thoughts, but place yourself in the position of choosing when, where, and how you will experience that worry?
- Choose a “worry time.” Decide on a set time and place each day that is specifically devoted to worrying about your current troubles. Perhaps this means that each day from 5:00 to 5:15, you will fully invite – even welcome – the experience of worrisome thoughts. During this time, you make the choice to allow all aspects of those worrisome thoughts to enter into conscious awareness. Practice observing them with mindful curiosity, accepting their presence, and then releasing them with each breath that leaves your lungs – cognitive defusion.
- Postpone worrying. This is different from avoiding/trying to control worrisome internal or external experiences. It means that if a familiar or brand new worrisome thought enters your mind, you make the choice to mindfully notice it, pause, and write it down. Place the worrisome thought aside on your “worry list” for now and carry on with being actively engaged in your day.
- Read your “worry list” during the “worry time.” Use your designated time for mindfully allowing and accepting your worrisome thoughts productively. Take the time to reflect on those worrisome thoughts you wrote down throughout the day and give them your undivided mindful attention. Maybe those worries from earlier in the day don’t seem so important after all. Notice what it is like to fully observe those worrisome thoughts, remembering that thoughts are “just” thoughts.
The reason postponing worry can be so effective is that you learn how to snap out of the habit of throwing yourself into engaging with your worrisome thoughts whenever they arise. Those thoughts no longer have the power to pull your attention away from living your life because you have a strategy to handle worry more effectively. There is no need to deny, avoid, or suppress your worries with this approach – you simply save the worries for a later time. Once you become adept at postponing those anxious thoughts, you will start to see that you have much more choice over how to handle your experience of worry than you realized.
Learn to Tell the Difference between Solvable & Unsolvable Problems
Worry serves a useful purpose in the moment – it actually makes you feel temporarily less anxious because you are distracted from your emotional experience and believe that you are actually accomplishing something by worrying. Problem-solving is quite different from worrying – it involves (1) evaluating a situation, (2) developing concrete steps to handle it, and (3) putting that plan into action. Worrying is much less effective for reaching solutions, since you’re generally just as ill-equipped to handle the problem when you started worrying as when you finally stop worrying.
The next time a worrisome thought enters your mind, slow down for a moment and ask yourself if this worry is related to a life problem that you can actually solve. Try reflecting on the following questions as you explore the nature of the worry:
- Am I currently facing this problem, or is this a hypothetical “what-if” situation?
- If this worry is about a “what-if,” how likely is it that the feared outcome will actually occur? Is this worry realistic?
- Can I actually do something about this problem, or is it genuinely out of my hands?
Solvable worries can be addressed through committed action in the present moment. For example, if I am worried that something is wrong with my car because it starts making funny noises, I can take problem-solving steps to address the concern on my own or by taking the car to a mechanic. When a worry is solvable, actively adopt a problem-solving approach to the situation, as opposed to allowing problems to grow while your head remains stuck in the sands of worry.
Unsolvable worries tend to keep you stuck in the positive feedback loop of anxiety, with worrisome thoughts and anxiety symptoms feeding off one another in an endless dance. These are the types of worries that are out of your control and often involve past or future-oriented “what-if” scenarios. For example, worries such as “what if I get into an accident” or “what if my partner becomes ill” are fear-based scenarios that rarely result in effective action.
Most chronic worriers are familiar with the experience of past and future-oriented worries about feared outcomes or situations that they perceive to be (or actually are) out of their control. Since worrying serves the temporarily useful purpose of avoiding the depth of your emotional experience, you may suspect that the way out of this cycle of worry is to embrace your emotions. This may seem terrifying and confusing at first. Once you increase emotional awareness and learn strategies to use your emotions effectively, the task becomes less daunting.
Emotions don’t always make “sense,” and trying to force them to make sense only keeps you stuck in useless worry. Try welcoming your emotional experience, whatever it may be, in the present moment. Your emotions are rich with information about yourself, others, and your experiences if only you will open yourself to them. It may help to remember that emotions are temporary experiences, no matter how painful they may be. Once you fully step into your emotions and experience them authentically, you have the freedom to move out of worry and through to the other side. This is where inner calm, peaceful knowing, and your deepest heartfelt intuition are waiting to guide your decisions in building your most meaningful and value-based life.
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Smith, M., Segal, R., & Segal, J. (2012, January). How to stop worrying: Self-help strategies for anxiety relief. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_self_help.htm
Featured image: Worried 62/365 by Roberto Bouza / CC BY 2.0