If you can deal with worry you can reduce stress and anxiety. Most of what we worry about doesn’t come to fruition, the process of worrying doesn’t actually keep bad things from happening, and worrying about possible future things robs you of joy in the present.
The whole purpose of worry is to predict – and prevent – possible bad things. The anxiety or worry part of our brains is constantly scanning the environment, taking in clues, and leaping to conclusions…and never with a happily ever after ending. The twisted part with worry is that it can get out of hand, causing panic attacks, worsening anxiety and depression, and hurting more than it helps.
There’s a saying that worrying is like rocking in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
As the uncertainty and catastrophe of 2020 continues, worry is getting a run for its money. If you’re noticing the non-stop ‘what ifs,’ the ‘oh no’s,’ and the jumping from point A to Zs, here are three quick strategies to help you keep worry in check.
1. Label it.
What if is a worry. Period. Even if the rest of the sentence is “But what if this isn’t a worry? What if this is valid?” If it starts with “What if,” it’s worry talking. Label it as such. “That’s a worry.”
Much like when the phone rings and you see it’s a telemarketer, you don’t pick up the phone and talk to the other person. You don’t argue with them or risk getting sucked into a scam. You simply look at the phone, note, “That’s a telemarketer,” and set it aside. Do the same thing with worry. Your mind starts to say “But what if…” You simply say, “That’s a worry” and shift your attention to something here and now.
I know, I know, this seems easier said than done. You can’t simply stop worrying, but you can mitigate the feeling of worry by staying in the present moment. If you want to solve the problem of excessive worrying, it starts with attacking the problem at its root, which is our mind’s tendency to jump ahead to the future or back to the past (mental time travel).
2. Focus on what is, not what if.
This is a take on mindfulness, which is a powerful practice with so many benefits. Rather than allowing your mind to drag you along for all of the possible catastrophes that could happen and all of the possible horrible outcomes, focus on what is. What are the actual facts of the current situation? What do you know for sure right now? Don’t indulge the speculations.
3. If you must indulge the what ifs, balance them.
Mental health professionals will rarely tell a patient to start worrying. We usually don’t need any help with that. Have you noticed that just about every what if is a negative? Something that could go wrong? All what ifs do is further negative thoughts. If you are going to give those thoughts time and attention, at least balance them out. To do this, write down the wha ifs and worries your mind is giving you. For each negative one, find a positive one. With this strategy, worries are still getting your attention, you’re just making your mind do some work to fight against its built in negativity bias. That is, by balancing worries you are countering your mind’s natural tendency toward negative thinking by making it intentionally more balanced. Here are some examples:
What if I bomb that presentation at work? – – – – -> What if I nail it?
What if she gets mad at me? – – – – – > What if she understands completely and is actually glad I spoke up?
What if schools can’t reopen safely? – – – – -> What if the current situation leads people to get creative, and the end result is an improved school system?
Whichever strategy you choose, just keep in mind that it’ll take some consistent practice. It’s definitely not as simple as “Just don’t worry about it!” Unfortunately, there’s no easy off switch for worry. It is, however, absolutely possible to train your mind to worry less.
Worry is simply a part of life, and at times worry is necessary, but not when constant worries cause physical symptoms and negatively impact your physical health. With these techniques, you can minimize the impact of problematic excessive worry.
Learning how and why your mind works the way it does and, more importantly, how to make it work for you not against you is perhaps one of the best investments you make. So take a deep breath, and don’t let chronic worrying and anxious thoughts ruin your life. Check out our new Ascend program for more tips, techniques, and strategies. You may also finds tools like behavioral therapy relaxation training helpful. Our Stress Management mini-course includes relaxation training and a number of other strategies that can help you deal with worry.