Source: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock
As we get older and look back on our lives, many of us will think, "I wish I'd worried less." We come to recognize that worry isn't worth what it can cost—tension, poor sleep, irritability, fatigue, problems concentrating, and general unhappiness. After all, most of what we worry about never happens.
If worrying has so many drawbacks, then why do we do it?
When some future outcome is uncertain, we want to make sure it turns out well. Most of the time, even after we've done all we can to prevent a bad outcome, we can't eliminate the possibility that something could go wrong. Maybe it's missing a flight, or getting sick, or messing up at work, or losing someone we care about. We don't have ultimate control over whether these things might happen.
When we have a hard time living with this uncertainty, we might return to the situation in our mind and keep turning it over, imaging every "what if" and how we might handle it—we're trying to control an uncontrollable situation. Worrying about uncertain future events reinforces itself.
How can a mental state tied to so much anxiety be rewarding? Each time we worry and nothing bad happens, our mind connects worry with preventing harm:
worry → nothing bad happens.
And the takeaway is, "It's a good thing I worried." (We probably aren't consciously aware of this thought process.)
On top of the self-perpetuating nature of worry, there are five common beliefs about worry that compel us to keep doing it:
1. If I worry, I'll never have a bad surprise.
Nobody likes to be blindsided by bad news, so we might worry to preempt disappointment. Unfortunately, we can't foresee everything that will happen to us, so it's impossible to avoid upsets. In the meantime, how much are we suffering by fearing the future?
2. It's safer if I worry.
Our beliefs about worry can have a superstitious element because we believe that the act of worrying itself somehow lowers the likelihood of a dreaded outcome. We might think that if we stop worrying we'd be inviting trouble. But if we constantly worry, we never get to test out this belief to see if it's true. Most of the time our worries are about as impactful as mentally "keeping the plane up" when flying in an airplane (assuming we're not the pilot).
3. I show I care by worrying.
We might tell ourselves that worrying says something good about us: "I only worry because I care." This may be true, but we too often turn it around and think, "If I didn't worry it would mean I don't care." We need to distinguish between caring about a situation—including doing everything in our power to help it turn out well—and worrying needlessly and fruitlessly about it. If in doubt, we can ask family members if they'd rather we worry or show we care in other ways.
4. Worrying motivates me.
It's not uncommon to believe that if we stop worrying, we'll become complacent or unproductive. Think about a recent time you were gripped with worry: Can you imagine yourself being motivated to take care of the situation, even if you weren't worrying so much? We need to differentiate between unproductive worry and productive concern and problem-solving.
- What Is Anxiety?
- Find a therapist to overcome anxiety
5. Worrying helps me solve problems.
We might tell ourselves that worrying is how we find solutions to our problems. However, extreme worry is more likely to interfere with problem-solving. Once more, we need to be aware of the difference between productive problem-solving and wheel-spinning worry. Consider these two modes in your own experience: How does it feel to be taking care of a problem vs. worrying about all the what-ifs?
What Can We Do Instead?
At this point, you might be thinking, "This is all well and good, but how am I supposed to worry less?" Let's be honest: It's really hard to stop worrying, so it helps to have multiple tools to assist us with the process. Here are five:
1. Calm the nervous system.
When we're constantly worried and on edge, our nervous system is on high alert. Mental tension translates into physical tension, which can make us feel like we really should worry because we're feeling so physically agitated. It can help to have ways to quiet our mind and body and find a sense of ease. There are multiple ways to do this, such as guided muscle relaxation, meditation, and exercise. (Here's a simple, one-minute exercise that you can practice virtually anywhere.)
Anxiety Essential Reads
Anxiety Unraveled: 10 Strategies to Liberate the Anxious Mind
Rethinking Trauma: Understanding Anxiety as Adaptation
2. Notice when you're worrying and any beliefs that reinforce worry.
We often don't recognize what our mind is up to. We might be aware of feeling anxious and stressed but we don't realize that we have some degree of choice in letting go of worries. Awareness of the process gives us more choice in how we respond.
3. Embrace uncertainty.
Most of the things we care about in life involve uncertainty. We can't be absolutely sure we'll do well in school, that people will like us, that we'll always have our health, or that we'll have a happy marriage. And yet we don't have to allow this uncertainty to stop us from living the life we want. Beyond simply tolerating uncertainty, we can embrace it as an inherent part of living. We spend so much time trying to eliminate uncertainty that it takes considerable practice to begin to embrace it.
4. Live in the present.
Training in mindful awareness is often a part of the treatment for excessive worry (as in generalized anxiety disorder). Mindfulness emphasizes focusing our mental energy on the present, with openness and acceptance—an attitude that is helpful on many levels. Worry is by definition about the future, so training your attention on the present is a powerful way to reduce your worries. We can practice focusing our attention on the present in everyday activities like taking a shower, walking, or talking with a friend, as well as in more formal practices like meditation or yoga.
5. Face your fears.
Worry is intended to protect us from our fear, and yet it can lead to dwelling on things that will never happen. When we face our fears head-on, they tend to diminish. Rather than worrying uselessly, we can practice deliberately accepting that what we're afraid of could happen: "It's possible I'll miss my flight." "I can't know for sure that this sniffle won't turn into a nasty cold." "I can't be entirely sure I won't lose my job." At first, it will probably feel frightening. With repeated practice, though, our fears become less gripping and we can confront them with greater equanimity.
It takes practice to worry less when we're in the habit of worrying. Even when we're determined to leave our worries behind, our mind will almost certainly return to them. Dropping our worries is a lot like meditating: Our thoughts will return to our worries, just as our minds will wander from the breath when we meditate. We can set an intention, and then return to it when we notice our mind has drifted. We can't eliminate all worries, but we can choose where we direct our attention.
LinkedIn image: SB Arts Media/Shutterstock
Human bodies are designed to protect you, and when you sense a threat (real or perceived), a stress signal is sent to the brain. In everyday life, this can manifest in the form of worrying. And while it can be helpful in some cases, oftentimes, it turns into an ongoing loop that can be hard to stop.What are the top 5 things people worry about? ›
- Being late.
- A friend or relative's health.
- Our own health.
- Missing a plane or bus.
- Not waking up to our alarm.
Human bodies are designed to protect you, and when you sense a threat (real or perceived), a stress signal is sent to the brain. In everyday life, this can manifest in the form of worrying. And while it can be helpful in some cases, oftentimes, it turns into an ongoing loop that can be hard to stop.What makes you worry less? ›
Stop worrying by taking positive action
Not only does taking positive action distract you from your worries, but it also allows you to expel extra energy. Focusing on any activity that makes you feel good can quickly shift your state of mind and help you stop worrying instantly.
Are you always waiting for disaster to strike or excessively worried about things such as health, money, family, work, or school? If so, you may have a type of anxiety disorder called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD can make daily life feel like a constant state of worry, fear, and dread.What kind of things worry you? ›
- Worried about the area I live in/ crime levels.
- Pet's health.
- If my dress sense is good.
- Meeting work targets or goals.
- Whether I'm a good parent/ raising kids right.
- A friend or family member I've fallen out with.
There are two main types of worries; practical worries and hypothetical worries. not to act on our worries and to start putting things off. However this often leads to our worries piling up and we can become overwhelmed and stuck in a vicious cycle.What does God say about worry? ›
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” The Good News: Don't let worries about the future overwhelm you; turn to the Lord for support in the present.
We feel like worrying may help us be more aware of a situation or better prepared to face it. It may help us come up with more alternative ways to solve a problem, which in turn may ensure we avoid the most negative consequences.What can cause stress and worry? ›
- Feel under lots of pressure.
- Face big changes in your life.
- Are worried about something.
- Don't have much or any control over the outcome of a situation.
- Have responsibilities that you find overwhelming.
- Don't have enough work, activities or change in your life.
- Experience discrimination, hate or abuse.
- Engage in Positive Self-Talk. ...
- Practice Gratitude. ...
- Identify Areas for Improvement. ...
- Spend Time with Positive People. ...
- Take Care of Your Physical Health. ...
- Remember to Laugh. ...
- Treat Your Self. ...
- Develop Morning & Evening Routines.
If you worry excessively, find productive activities that can easily distract your thought process. Keep busy. Get up and get moving — exercise is a natural way to break the cycle because it releases endorphins which relieve tension and stress, boost energy, and enhance your sense of well-being.How can I worry less and start living? ›
- Step 1: Analyze a situation causing you worry to determine the worst possible scenario if you fail.
- Step 2: Accept the worst possible case scenario, if it is to happen.
- Step 3: Focus on trying to improve the situation so that you end up with a better outcome than worst case.
Meanwhile, overthinking may be associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression. Following a traumatic event, it's also common to be hypervigilant — which is when you're on high alert for danger at all times. Some people experience hypervigilance as overthinking about potential signs of trouble.How do I stop worrying about the future? ›
- Consider daily meditation. ...
- Evaluate potential causes. ...
- Employ grounding techniques. ...
- Express your gratitude. ...
- Focus on what you can control. ...
- Identify negative self-talk. ...
- Nourish and hydrate yourself properly. ...
- Plan for goals and tasks.
Key findings. Inflation remains the top global worry: 37% say it is one of the top issues facing their country today (+3 points vs. May 2022). This month, 10 countries cite inflation as their greatest worry, three more than last month.What is the greatest worry? ›
The greatest worry and fear in our society today is the threat of violence to our families and the threat to the security of our possessions and our homes.What are 3 things that can cause worry or anxiety? ›
- past or childhood experiences.
- your current life situation.
- physical and mental health problems.
- drugs and medication.
- Worry Over Work. If you're worried about work on a regular basis, you're certainly not alone. ...
- Worry About Money. Arguably the most common worry is about money, or, a lack of it. ...
- Worrying Over Health. Another big thing people worry about is their health. ...
- Worry About What Others Think. ...
- Worrying About The Past.