Q: I worry too much and it is making me sick. It’s usually about things that eventually work out somehow or another, but in the meantime, it’s all I can think about. Is there hope for me or will I be a worrywart forever?
A: Worrying can drain emotional energy and ruin our quality of life. It can fog up our lenses, making the world very blurry. But the good news is we can learn to clean those lenses, train our brain to stay calm and collected so life is crystal.
Here’s your homework.
1. Accept uncertainty.
You can not predict life so quit trying to. Stop obsessing about the what ifs. Bad things are going to happen whether you dwell or not. But also good things are going to happen. The key is to not crave answers. Live in the moment. More micro. Less macro. Accepting uncertainty is very difficult for most because it means letting go, not controlling. So the first step is to not try to control your life. This doesn’t mean don’t be proactive, ambitious, and assertive. It just means let life unfold. You can only control what you have control over. That is you and your thoughts.
2. Create a worry period.
It’s also impossible to be happy when anxiety and worry are dominating your thoughts. You can not white knuckle worrying away. So allow yourself to worry, but only for a designated period of time each day. Say from 5:00 to 5:20 pm, you will allow yourself to worry your ass off. Go ahead, do it. Get it all out as they say. But after that twenty minutes, you need to snap back. This will exercise you to have more control over your worrying. It’s a mental work out. Eventually, you will be able to control your worrying instead of letting worrying control you.
3. Challenge negative thoughts.
Chronic anxiety and worrying = looking at the world in ways that make it seem more negative / threatening than it really is. For example, you may overestimate the possibility that things will turn out badly, jump immediately to worst-case scenarios, or treat every negative thought as if it were fact. You may also discredit your own ability to handle life’s problems, assuming you’ll fall apart at the first sign of trouble. These irrational, pessimistic attitudes are known as cognitive distortions. These distortions are automatic, what I call “knee jerks”. You must learn to break them, retrain your brain.
Cognitive Distortions that Lead to Anxiety and Worry:
All-or-nothing thinking Looking at things in black-or-white categories, with no middle ground (“If I fall short of perfection, I’m a total failure.”)
Generalizing from a single negative experience, expecting it to hold true forever (“I didn’t get hired for the job; I’ll never get any job.”)
The mental filter
Focusing on the negatives while filtering out all the positives. Noticing the one thing that went wrong, rather than all the things that went right.
Diminishing the positive
Coming up with reasons why positive events don’t count (“I did well on the presentation, but that was just dumb luck.”)
Jumping to conclusions
Making negative interpretations without actual evidence. You act like a mind reader (“I can tell she secretly hates me.”) or a fortune teller (“I just know something terrible is going to happen.”)
Expecting the worst-case scenario to happen (“The pilot said we’re in for some turbulence. The plane’s going to crash!”)
Believing that the way you feel reflects reality (“I feel frightened right now. That must mean I’m in real physical danger.”)
‘Shoulds’ and ‘should-nots’
Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do-and beating yourself up if you break any of the rules
Labeling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings (“I’m a failure; an idiot; a loser.”)
Assuming responsibility for things that are outside your control (“It’s my fault my son got in an accident. I should have warned him to drive carefully in the rain.”)
Start by identifying the negative thought, being as detailed as possible about what scares or worries you. Then, instead of viewing your thoughts as facts, treat them as opinions. Now argue it. You will end up with a more accurate balanced perspective. Crush your false beliefs.
4. Learn how to relax.
Anxiety is more than just a feeling. It’s the body’s physical “fight or flight” reaction to a perceived threat. Your heart pounds, you breathe faster, your muscles tense up, and you feel light-headed. When you’re relaxed, the complete opposite happens. Your heart rate slows down, you breathe slower and more deeply, your muscles relax, and your blood pressure stabilizes. Since it’s impossible to be anxious and relaxed at the same time, strengthening your body’s relaxation response is a powerful anxiety-relieving tactic. You must decide what is relaxing for you. A bath, working out, a jog, etc. Do it. Every single day. By doing this, you are also taking care of yourself, which is imperative in being healthy whether you are a “worrywart” or not.