If you’re a worrier, you’ll know exactly how much time and energy you can potentially waste on that terribly unpleasant mental habit of imagining real or potential problems. To some degree, we all worry about different things at different times but the propensity to imagine risks or worst case scenarios falls along a spectrum. Basically, some of us worry more than others.
When you worry, your mind is performing the task of trying to control something that is uncertain. We all feel safer when we can plan and predict an outcome but when there’s no way of doing that, your mind can tend to go over and over the situation trying to come up with a solution. If worrying prompts you to come up with a solution to a problem, that can be a positive outcome, but usually the only result of your worrying is that you feel more stressed, anxious and tense.
While worry shares some of the same characteristics with the more serious problem of anxiety, worry tends to create a lower level of distress, can be focused on a specific situation and is more temporary in nature. Still, when you’re worrying a lot of the time it can affect your mood and your physical wellbeing and it’s worth learning some strategies to get it under control.
To help you out, I’ve listed three simple, useful strategies you might be able to apply when you find yourself being consumed by worry:
This is a technique used in cognitive therapy where you simply decide to postpone your worry to a later time when it’s more convenient for you, say 5pm for 30 minutes. Each time you notice a worry thought pop into your mind, you simply remind yourself to postpone it until later. Then when your designated time comes, try to apply constructive problem solving to your worries.
The Downward Arrow
When you find yourself worrying about something, use the downward arrow to drill down into the worst possible outcome. Simply ask yourself “What would be the worst thing about that, if it came to pass?” And then what would be the worst thing about that? And what would be the worst thing about that? Usually, whatever you are worrying about (even if it were to happen, which it may not) isn’t going to lead to anyone’s death, homelessness or bankruptcy. This can help to bring some perspective to whatever you’re worrying about.
When you worry, the ‘fight or flight’ part of your brain (downstairs brain) is activated, which means the cortical regions (upstairs brain) are offline. It’s the upstairs brain that helps us apply rational problem solving, whereas the downstairs brain is only concerned with our immediate survival. Taking slow deep breaths sends a message to your brain that you aren’t in danger, and therefore deactivates the ‘fight or flight’ emotional response and allows you access to your upstairs, rational brain. The other advantage of focusing on breathing is that your mind can’t be in two places at once, so focusing on counting breaths can provide a distraction from your worry thoughts.
The most important thing is to learn to notice when your mind is wanting to anticipate all the things that might go wrong or all the worst case scenarios. If you’ve “always been a worrier” that mental habit can be hard to break but the more you can bring mindful, non-judgemental awareness to that habit pattern, the better chance you have of retraining your brain to do something different.