A couple of years ago, the town where my dad lived in was experiencing horrific fires. The high-winds, combined with a lush landscape provided fuel to this beautiful land filled with trees, groves and incredible landscapes. I had lived there for a few years so when I would see the news of how the fires were quickly and fiercely moving and destroying homes, entire blocks and communities – my worry was on high alert. I had gotten a message from him that they were evacuating. He had loaded up my step-mom and their dog in the car with nothing more than the clothes on their back. Of course I tried calling him, but his phone was going straight to voicemail. I had heard on the news communications were down, but as you can imagine - I was WORRIED.
I began creating worse-case scenarios in my mind of what could be happening. I could actually feel my muscles tense up and my breath becoming more shallow. I finally did hear from them and they made it to a Red Cross shelter and were safe and even still, I was worried. Worried about how comfortable they were sleeping on cots (they are in their 70’s), worried about their dog, worried about their home. They were evacuated for 11 days and thankfully when they returned home, it was still standing.
As I experienced at this time, few things are as unpleasant as worrying. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even physically ill. Upset stomach, restless sleep, hair loss, hives – the list of physical problems seem endless when it comes to worry.
Sometimes, worrying can be motivating and constructive. However, it is easy to overuse, draining your energy and instilling fear. Rather than use worry to drive your behavior toward a clear resolution, it can distract you, muddying up your decision-making process and can turn into relentless thinking which only creates more anxiety and you’ll never actually get somewhere with the worrying thoughts. I often tell my clients "Worrying is like praying for what you don't want."
Have you ever had this experience? What starts off as a worry, can quickly end up becoming a full-fledged obsession or panic attack. Keeping our worry in check, before it gets to that point is key.
Trying to Predict the Future
When you worry about the future, which is often the case, you are literally creating a physical and emotional reaction about something that has yet to occur. Is the following situation familiar? You are unsure how a particular situation will unfold, which is anxiety provoking in itself. Our brains crave the security that comes with certainty, so you desperately attempt to fill in the gaps of how you think a situation will turn out. Some go straight for the “worse case scenario” Making up an awful story and then believing that is going to be the outcome. Ugh.
But as you know, no matter how much you try, you can’t predict the future. So now your worries are two-fold: how will you fill in the gap to lessen your anxiety and what if your prediction doesn’t unfold as you had hoped?
I’ve done this. Many times. I mean, who hasn’t? Uncertainty is uncomfortable. But what is worse is trying to predict the future. Then it seems we actually create a problem where there wasn’t one to begin with.
The Side Effects of Worrying
These patterns and habits are often so hard-wired within us, we don’t even realize we are doing it. Worrying about the future becomes habitual and brings all of its unpleasant side effects with it. These effects can become more pronounced over time until, eventually, they become too distressing to ignore. This isn’t to say however, that we can’t become more mindful about our thoughts and change our worry-ing thoughts or behavior patterns. We can.
Worrying too much can affect both mind and body in a variety of ways such as:
Elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
Difficulty making decisions
When worrying starts to feel like it’s harming you instead of helping, it’s time to take notice. Eliminating worry from your life altogether is nearly impossible, not to mention unnecessary since worry can be helpful in motivating you to prepare for a test or work project, for example. The key is to become aware of the thoughts and sensations that occur within our body when we worry and strive to find a healthy balance between worry and ease.
If you can learn how to identify the signs indicating worry is harming your well-being, you can implement strategies to combat its effects. No matter how much you may have worried in the past, it’s never too late to change your approach. The following are a few tips for finding the amount of worry that best suits you.
Be More Mindful
Unless you’re able to observe and acknowledge your tendency to worry, it will be harder to stop. If worry is your automatic response to adversity, uncertainty, or general life changes—and has been for some time—it may take some time to break the habit. Becoming aware of your reactions is a good first step.
When you practice mindfulness, you become increasingly better at recognizing thought patterns, including those that do you a disservice.
Take a few moments each day to sit quietly and focus on your breath.
Observe your thoughts without engaging them. It’s kind of like watching them float by you on a cloud. You just notice them and let them go.
If your mind begins to wander, bring your attention back to your breath.
Over time, this simple exercise will allow you to detach from your reactions and to become an observer of your thoughts. To go deeper and to understand more about the positive affects meditation can have and to learn the basics of learning how to meditate, check out my FREE online audio program Learn How to Meditate.
In addition, take note the next time you find yourself in a situation that causes you to worry. What is your specific worry or concern? Do you notice any thought patterns? Do the situations that cause you to worry share any of the same characteristics? The answers to these questions can help you to prepare to take action.
Keep a Notepad Handy
When you worry, you put your brain into overtime to try and figure out solutions. You dissect a problem and concern yourself with every possible outcome. No wonder it feels so exhausting!
While focusing on the problem can cause worry, you may fear that by not coming up with a solution, you’re laying the groundwork for anxiety. You might be thinking, “If only I could come up with a solution then I could finally relax.” This feeling of urgency to quickly come up with a solution in order to ease your anxiety and can cause you to worry even more.
Instead, keep a notepad handy and write down your worries as they arise. If you’re in the middle of something important and a concern pops up, you can write it down and save it for later. Resist the urge to drop everything and focus all of your attention on coming up with a solution. This delay not only takes some of the pressure off, but it also allows you to return to the list at your leisure. Address your worries when you’re feeling calm and clear headed.
Note: Your brain typically has a harder time conjuring up solid solutions when it’s stressed and under pressure. Ever tried really hard to solve a problem only to feel yourself getting further and further away from a solution? Try tackling your “worry list” after you’ve done something enjoyable, even if it’s simply going out for a coffee. Do something that puts you in a better headspace then sit down with your list.
Make a List of What You Can and Can’t Control
Worry typically derives from a fear that you won’t be able to handle whatever life throws at you. If you aren’t confident in your ability to handle situations, you may try to control everything you can in order to feel a sense of safety and certainty. But you can’t control for every outcome because that’s simply not how life works. Life throws curveballs and, oftentimes, things aren’t what you expected they would be (which can be a good thing!).
Review your list of worries and jot down the things you can control and then the things that you can’t. Stop worrying about the things under the “can’t” column (no amount of worrying will change them anyway) and put that energy into tackling the things you can. Get specific on how you will address this side of the list and ensure your actions are realistic. Creating an action plan allows you to feel more in charge and to worry less.
Often times, I tell clients to imagine they have a hula-hoop around their waist. I remind them that everything that is inside they hula-hoop they can control and everything outside of it, they can't. Helps to put things into perspective.
These three tips will help you acknowledge your worries and enable you to better assess and manage them. It’s possible that once you’ve meditated on a worry, or written it down, that you’ll realize your concern isn’t so big after all. Or maybe you can take a large worry and break it into smaller pieces that can be addressed so that your level of worry decreases. Whatever your approach, you’re not alone—everybody worries to some extent—what’s important is that you don’t let your worries overtake you.