This blog looks at how to stop worrying. Worry is part of the human condition but persistent worrying can turn into an uncomfortable habit that’s very hard to shake. Chronic worriers even worry when they have nothing to worry about! Some feel that if they stop worrying, then they are ‘tempting fate’. Worrying is not harmless; it has consequences. The more we worry, the more stress hormone we produce and the more we dream at night. In turn, over-dreaming caused by unresolved worry can cause depression (something else to worry about!), so learning how to stop worrying so much can have multiple benefits.
Chronic worrying has been called a ‘thought disorder’, but it’s more a misuse of the imagination. It has measurable, palpable effects, both physical and behavioural. How can you overcome it?
- Get distance from the worry
We are capable of imagining absolutely anything, but whether we buy in to what we imagine is another matter altogether. Stephen King uses his imagination (as do many writers) to create terrifying scenarios, but he produces all these scary ideas without being scared witless by them himself. He can clearly separate himself from what he is imagining. People often say to us “just stop thinking about it” – possibly the most useless advice ever. Actually the precise opposite can help: learn how to relax very deeply. Now at the same time relax deeply while imagining what normally scares them. ‘See’ your worries in the distance ‘over there’ while feeling totally relaxed ‘over here’. Worry without feeling worried. (Emotion is the neon sign yelling, “Pay attention to this!” When you diminish the emotion, the compulsive thoughts fade away and it becomes much easier for you to stop worrying.)
- Organise the worry
There’s nothing like a timetable for bringing things under control. Worry tends to be intrusive, gate-crashing your head when you’re trying to enjoy yourself or concentrate on something. Prescribing ‘worry time’ is a neat way of prescribing the symptom and organising this destructive use of the imagination as a prelude to getting rid of it once and for all. (Of course, being able to worry sometimes is useful for all of us, so perhaps we won’t get rid of it completely – just keep it in its place.) Select a specific time of day to sit down and do nothing but worry for a set period – no longer than 20 minutes – you totally have the permission to ‘defer worrying’. When a troublesome thought occurs, say to yourself, “Okay – there’s a worrying thought. I’ll worry about that in my ‘worry time’, not now.” (People find that when they must do it for 20 minutes, it gets harder and harder to do – transforming itself from something that you can’t help doing to something that’s a real nuisance to keep up.)
- Write down solution steps
Worrying that doesn’t lead anywhere is like a dog chasing its tail. It’s been shown that writing about emotional issues lowers stress hormone levels, perhaps because writing requires us to use other (less emotional) parts of the brain. But to be really effective, writing needs to be more than just venting. So use this practical writing technique:
- List – write down, exactly and clearly, just what you are fearful of, making as full a list as possible
- Split – mark each item on the list as ‘soluble’ or ‘insoluble’ (for example, worries about situations that cannot be immediately changed or concerns over the unchangeable past)
- Steps – copy all the ‘soluble’ items into a single column on one side of a page. Next to each item, write some practical steps that can be taken towards ‘fixing’ that problem
- Resolve – copy all the ‘insoluble’ items into a single column on one side of another page. Beside each item, describe how you would need to feel differently about these issues in order to resolve these worries psychologically (for example, “I need to accept that he’s gone and won’t come back”).
- Throw your worries away
Writing down bad memories, sealing the paper in an envelope, and then throwing it away has been found to influence the memory. Recollection of the emotional details of an event actually becomes weaker after this metaphorical act.
Ultimately, worry should be a tool or a signal that lets us know when something might need addressing. We shouldn’t lose this tool completely, but no tool should ever be allowed to enslave its owner.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with worry or anxiety, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.