Do you wish you knew how to stop worrying? While it's difficult to eliminate worry entirely, these practical tips can help ease your mind and shift your focus.
- Posted on Jun 1, 2016
You may have heard the admonishment, "Worrying is like praying for what you don't want to happen." And yet that doesn't make it any easier to stop a worry-prone mind from fretting.
There is good reason to teach yourself to reign in worry—studies show that anxiety, the mother of worry, can cause everything from cardiovascular problems to headaches to compromised immunity. To reign in those toxic "what-ifs," we've gathered tips to help you free up your mind—and life—for more joy, fun, and light.
1) Write Down Your Worries
When we take the worries out of their cyclone in our head and put them down on paper or pixels, we can relax and let at least some of them go. Several studies have found that writing down worries clears out the mind for other things. One study of those with test-taking anxiety showed students actually performed better on exams after writing out their worries.
2) Set A Worrying Date
Studies have shown that setting a 30-minute daily "worry date"—in which you are free to obsess and wonder and fret for a discrete amount of time—helps reduce overall time spent worrying and lessen its negative effect on your life. With this approach, when a worry thought barges into your mind while you're trying to focus on work, you can say "I'll see you tonight!" And then keep on working, knowing you'll have time to focus on it later.
3) Share Your Worries with Others
Similar to writing down worries, speaking them helps us take a load off. Also, when we get vulnerable and real with the trustworthy people in our lives we feel a great sense of support and connection. Many studies about wellbeing have shown that a big key to happiness and longevity comes down to one word: friends. When we share the full spectrum of of human experience with others—the joys and the pains—we strengthen those bonds and their benefits. So kvetch away!
4) Create a "Worry Meditation"
Spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has something he calls a "telephone meditation." In it, when the phone rings, that's your cue to take a deep, slow inhale and exhale. You can also use the bing of an incoming text or the blare of a car horn. Just about anything can be your cue to step out of the worry storm and into your center. Meditation and mindfulness have, in study after study, been shown to help us be more positive and less distracted by negative thinking. Developing a regular meditation practice doesn't mean you won't have any worries—but it can mean that you don't get swept away by them, which can make all the difference.
5) Practice Gratitude
In many ways thankfulness is the exact opposite of worry, making it a powerful antidote. When we are expressing gratitude for what we have, there is less brain space to worry about what we don't. Many studies show that the regular practice of gratitude can shift negative thinking to positive and help us be overall happier and more emotionally uplifted and even.
6) Re-train Your Brain
If you've lived through trauma or depression, your brain may be extra vulnerable to worrying. That's because compromised hormone levels, a brain wired to see the negative, and a nervous system on high-alert for trouble—often the physiological results of emotional stress—can all poise you for negativity. The good news is, the brain can grow. Using neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to heal and change) to your advantage, you can begin to alter the way your brain works. All of the above can start to do that, but so can online happiness games like research-based Happify.com, which uses methods like cognitive behavioral therapy to nudge your brain toward less worry.
7) Be in the Now
Worry is concerned with what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. The more you can focus on what's happening right this second, the less you can dwell in those what-ifs. Like right now—what's happening? What do you feel, smell, hear? And in this actual moment—are you basically OK? As in—do you have a safe place to live? Do you have love in your life? Do you have food to eat? Probably so. Check in to all of that when worry starts to drag you away: "Am I OK right now?" The possibly surprising answer is usually yes.
8) Take Action When You Can, "Let Go" of What You Can't
Of course a certain degree of worrying serves a purpose. (Some studies show it's actually a sign of intelligence!) It helps you get stuff done. Once you've written down your worries, see which ones are actionable. Are you worrying because you haven't returned a phone call? Handed in an assignment? Bought a needed item? If so, get to it! And are some of the things on your list beyond your reach? If so, that handy Serenity Prayer—a worrywart's best friend—might be helpful right now. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."