Do you ever find yourself chewing over worries, imagining all the ways something could go wrong? Trying to plan for every ‘what if’? Perhaps even worrying about how much you worry? If so, you are not alone – read on for some practical tips on how to beat worry.
Beliefs about worry
Many of us have unhelpful beliefs about worry. We might believe that worrying about someone we love is a way of showing we care. Some people feel that they need to worry to motivate themselves to do things, but excessive worry can backfire as anxiety prevents you from taking action.
It can be tempting to think through every ‘what if?’, and almost to believe that this over-worrying will stop those ‘what if?’s from happening. That’s ‘magical thinking’: just thinking about something doesn’t make it more or less likely to happen (but it is likely to make us feel more anxious!).
Have you ever noticed how worry can leave you feeling exhausted? Worry is an activity that takes up mental – and sometimes physical – energy. Our attention is limited, and when we are worrying it’s hard to focus on other things. And, when we worry and imagine bad things happening, that causes a stress response in the body.
Interestingly, people who worry a lot often report that when something stressful happens, they are surprised by how calm they actually are – it’s the unnecessary worry beforehand that causes the distress.
5 ways to beat worry
1) Keep a “worry journal”
- For two weeks, keep write down all your worries. For each worry, note your feared outcome. At the end of the two weeks, next to each worry write down:
- Did the outcome happen – yes or no?
- Did things turn out better, worse, or the same as expected?
- How well did you cope with the outcome (if you like, you can use a scale – 1 = did not cope at all well; 5 = extremely well)
At the end of the two weeks, reflect: did things generally pan out better or worse than expected? What do you learn from this? When a worry comes up, consider will you still be worried about this in 24 hours’ time? A week’s time? A month? A year?
2) Recognise your worry warning signs
- See if you can start to recognise the first signs that you are worrying – perhaps you stare into space, find you’re not taking in what you’re listening to or reading, or clench your jaw.
- When you notice these warning signs, give yourself one minute to worry, then consider: are you feeling better or worse after that minute of worry? Is the worry helping you develop a plan how to solve a problem?
- If the answer to these questions is no, then stop and switch your focus: if you have ‘spaced out’ whilst doing something else (e.g. writing an email) try to re-focus all your attention on what you are doing. If you are not already doing something (e.g. if you are mindlessly browsing Instagram), get on with something different that matters to you or will make you feel better: do something you have been putting off, make a cup of tea, or call a friend.
- It can be helpful to make a list of short, simple activities that you can do instead of worrying, so you have lots of ideas ready to hand.
3) Constructive worry time: turn worry into problem-solving
- Set aside 15 minutes a day (set a timer!) – many people find that early evening works best, but avoid doing this too close to bedtime.
- Get a piece of paper, and write down your worries or concerns. For each worry, note down:
- What’s the next, smallest step you can take?
- If you have an idea of the full plan (more than one step), write that down
- If you don’t know what to do, and you need to ask for help – write that down
- If you think there’s no solution or answer yet and you just have to live with things for now – write that down
When you are done, fold up the paper – you can return to it the following day. If worries come up during the day, you can briefly jot them down, then tell yourself you can consider them fully during your “worry time” later in the day. Research has shown that constructive worry time can be particularly helpful for people whose worry make it harder for them to sleep.
4) Try mindfulness
- Mindfulness can reduce worry as it helps us develop the skill of noticing when we worry, and letting thoughts come and go. My clients tell me they find mindfulness useful in conjunction with constructive worry time, as they learn to let worry thoughts go when they need to focus on other things, knowing they can come back to problem-solve them later in the day.
5) Find a relaxation technique that works for you
We cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time – relaxing the body helps to calm and mind, slow down thinking, and consider things more flexibly.
Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” system. Not many people know that we have our own in-built relaxation system, too. There are lots of ways to stimulate this natural relaxation system – from breathing, to guided meditation or hypnosis, to progressive muscle relaxation. Experiment to find one that works for you, and practice it regularly.
Originally published on Welldoing.org.
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