Become a smart worrier by managing your worry.
Worry is a feeling of anxiety and unease that warns us that something is off. Although it’s an unpleasant emotion, it plays an important role in our lives. Look at the following:
- Worry can signal to us that there’s something that we need to pay attention to – there’s something that may be threatening our survival or wellbeing. This heightened awareness can prepare us to better address the potential threat that we’re facing.
- Worry can motivate us to take positive action. For example, worrying that you may do poorly on a test can motivate you to study hard for that exam. Worrying about losing your job can motivate you to update your résumé and spend one-hour-a-day upgrading your job skills. If you’re worried about your health this can be the motivation that you need to start eating healthier meals and to start exercising.
- Worry can help you to identify possible negative outcomes, which allows you to come up with ways to avoid those outcomes.
- People who have a laissez faire attitude toward life—those who simply refuse to worry about anything—often live in disarray and fail to plan adequately for the future. They tend to be reckless and too cavalier.
As you can see from the points above, worrying has its benefits. However, worry can become a problem if one, or both, of the following conditions exist:
- You can’t turn off your worries—you can’t disengage from your worries.
- You keep having the same thoughts repeatedly in an endless loop, without it leading to positive problem solving.
Worry on over-drive can have lots of negative effects, including the following:
- Worrying leads to stress, and the anxiety caused by stress can keep you up at night and interfere with the quality of your sleep.
- Worry can speed up the aging process.
- Worrying can cause intestinal problems and can tax your immune system.
- People who worry constantly are more prone to depression.
- When we’re worried our amygdala keeps directing our attention to whatever it is that’s troubling us. This means that we can’t concentrate on other things, such as our work or studies.
Therefore, it’s important to have a strategy for dealing with worry. Below you’ll find 8 healthy ways to manage worry.
1. Challenge Your Beliefs About Worry.
A lot of people think that worrying is a bad thing. However, as was explained above, worry can serve an important function in your life. As long as you manage worry properly, worry is an important part of your repertoire for dealing with the world effectively.
At the same time, worrying in and of itself doesn’t solve anything. It’s a signal that there’s a problem that needs to be solved. Therefore, keep in mind that worry that doesn’t lead to problem solving is a waste of time.
2. Determine Whether Some of Your Worries are Simply Noise.
The previous point indicated that worry is a signal that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. However, sometimes worry is simply noise –repetitive, unnecessary, unproductive negative thoughts that keep popping into your head.
To determine whether the worry that you’re feeling is a signal or simply noise, ask yourself questions like the following:
- What am I worried will happen?
- Is this a real problem that I’m facing, or an imaginary “what if”?
- Is this my mind warning me that there’s something I need to do, or is my brain’s threat detection mechanism just going into overdrive?
- Are these thoughts helping me?
- What’s the benefit of having these thoughts?
If you conclude that the worry that you’re feeling is simply noise, then make the decision to stop having those thoughts. Tell yourself the following:
“I’m in control of my thoughts. I’ve determined that these thoughts are simply noise and that they’re not helping me in any way. I’m going to stop focusing on them.”
3. Postpone Your Worries.
A study conducted by researchers in the Netherlands found that compartmentalizing worry—setting time aside specifically for worry—and deliberately avoiding thinking about whatever it is that’s worrying you for the rest of the day, can help to reduce worry.
Therefore, a useful strategy for managing worry is to schedule worry time. Set aside 15 to 30 minutes a day to cope with whatever is troubling you. You’re going to use that time to think about what’s troubling you and to consider a solution. Try to make it the same time each day.
This is like making a mental agreement with your worry. Here’s the agreement:
- Except for your scheduled worry time, your day will be worry-free.
- You’re not telling yourself to stop worrying. Instead, you’re telling yourself to postpone worrying until the scheduled time.
- You’re not pretending that everything is going to be OK. It could very well be that your worries are warranted. In which case, you’re going to come up with a plan of action to take care of the problem that is worrying you—at the scheduled time.
4. Practice Realistic Thinking.
Sometimes worry is caused–or at least exacerbated–by the way in which you’re thinking about a problem. You want to make sure that you’re thinking realistically about whatever it is that’s worrying you. That is, think about it in a balanced way. Ask yourself questions like the following:
- What am I worried will happen?
- How likely is it that this will happen?
- What evidence do I have that this might happen? Am I relying on facts or on how I feel?
- Am I overestimating the probability that something bad will happen? Is my concern realistic?
- What’s the most likely thing that will happen?
- Is this problem as threatening as I think it is?
- If it really did happen, would it be as catastrophic as I’m making it out to be?
- What would I say to a friend who was worried about this?
- What’s a more helpful way to view this?
- What’s a more balanced way to think of this?
After thinking realistically about whatever it is that’s worrying you, you may conclude that it’s not really worth worrying about after all.
In the alternative, you may conclude that although things are not as bad as you were making them out to be, there is a problem that needs to be solved. In that case, move on to the next point.
5. Have a Problem-Solving Session.
If you determine that the worry that you’re feeling is a legitimate signal and not just noise, then you need to conduct a problem-solving session. During this problem-solving session, do the following:
- Identify what you’re worried about. Instead of feeling generalized worry, you want to be able to pin point exactly what it is that you’re worried about. That is, define the problem that you’re having as clearly as possible. Once you’ve identified what’s worrying you, write it down.
- Think of how to solve the problem. If you can come up with a way to solve the problem completely, great! Write it down. If not, write down ideas for the next possible step you could take. Do you need more information? Is there someone you can ask for help? Is there a skill that you need to acquire? Is there something you can do to lessen the negative impact in case things go wrong? What’s the most obvious next step that you can take?
- Take action. Whatever you decided to do in the previous step, do it. Once you have a plan and you start acting to solve the problem, you’ll feel much better. Remember: worry sits on the fence. Jump off the fence and get to work fixing the problem that’s worrying you.
6. Accept the Things You Cannot Change.
What if you try to solve the problem that is worrying you, but you conclude that there’s nothing you can do about it? Then make a note of that. Tell yourself:
“I’ve honored my worry by trying to resolve the issue that is causing the worry, but there’s nothing I can do about it at the moment. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open to see if any possible solutions present themselves, and I’ll think about this again tomorrow at this same time.”
7. Embrace Uncertainty.
People who feel that they need certainty and predictability often use worry to try to gain some sense of control over the future. Those that fall into this category need to accept that uncertainty is a part of life, and that no amount of worrying will ensure the outcome that they want.
Here’s how to embrace uncertainty:
- Realize that uncertainty is neutral. Something bad may happen in the future, or something great may happen. You may not get what you want, or you may get something even better. Uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of telling yourself that you’re worried about the uncertainty of the future, tell yourself that you’re feeling cautious expectation and excitement.
- Focus on the things that you can control. Instead of staring in despair at the things that you can’t control, place your attention on the things that you can control, enjoy, or appreciate.
- Learn to tolerate discomfort. Notice your discomfort, and then just sit with it. See? Being somewhat uncomfortable is not the end of the world.
- Stay in the present. If you’re focused on the present rather than on the future, then the uncertainty of the future is less likely to bother you.
Manage your worry by embracing uncertainty.
8. Manage Stress
Worrying can be very stressful. When you worry, your body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In excess, these hormones can wreck havoc with your mental, physical, and emotional health. One way to stop worry from interfering with your quality of life is to reduce the stress that it causes you.
Here are three ways to do this:
- Meditate. Meditation—mindfulness meditation in particular—takes your attention away from your mental chatter and places it on the present moment. The side-effect of this is inner calm and a feeling of serenity.
- Exercise. When you exercise your body bumps up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. This translates to instant stress relief.
- Try Deep Breathing Exercises. Breathing exercises trigger the relaxation response, a physiological change that can help lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones.
Finding ways to lower your stress is an important part of worry management.
As you can see from the discussion above, worry–if properly managed–can be a powerful ally. Use the 8 tips above to start worrying constructively and become a smart worrier. Manage your worry and live your best life.