Sometimes I think there must be a worry epidemic. I see so many people who are stressed, overwhelmed, and constantly on the lookout for what could go wrong. But many people feel their worry is at least somewhat helpful. After all, it helps us plan ahead and prepare for challenges. But that is only true of some types of worry. Most of it is a waste of energy that only increases anxiety and pulls us farther away from the present. So why do we keep doing it? Because in most cases, we do have the power to stop worry from taking over our thoughts.
First, we must distinguish productive worry from the unproductive kind. When you start to worry, analyze the thought. Look for two things: is it realistic, and is it solvable. Realistic worries are about things that have a high likelihood of happening, such as worrying about a tornado coming on a stormy night when you hear the warning sirens start to blare. However, if there are no clouds in the sky, a tornado is an unrealistic worry. Set those aside for now, we’ll deal with them in a minute. Now, decide if your worry is solvable. If the warning sirens are blaring, I know I can take cover and protect myself and my family. Realistic, solvable worries require that we take action. We can brainstorm possible solutions, research answers and take care of the problem. Once that occurs, the worry can be released. On the other hand, unsolvable worries are usually imagination run wild, such as the worry that I might someday get into a car accident. If I’m not in my car right this second, this is clearly not a solvable problem.
Now that we’ve taken care of the realistic, solvable worries, it’s time to address their more problematic counterparts. What do we do with unrealistic, imaginary and, let’s be honest, usually repetitive worries? These are tougher, because ignoring them is like telling yourself not to think about zebras… What are you thinking about now? The simple act of sorting worries into those we can address and those we can’t allows us to recognize when we’re engaging in unproductive worry. Then, we can consciously choose to release it. If that isn’t enough, keep a worry journal handy so you can jot down the thoughts when they come up. Then set it aside. Again, the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging the worry may release it. If not, choose a later time to allow your worries to present themselves. This dedicated “Worry Time” should be scheduled, and limited. My worries get their 15 minutes of head space at 3:00 pm before the kids get home. I get out my journal and address each one. Maybe postponing the worry has had the benefit of shortening my list, either the problem is solved, or it no longer seems important. Otherwise, I give each item its moment, and then close the book on worries for the day. Any others that arise in the evening get the same treatment.
Worry is often about the future, or the past. So another way to release worry is to stay present. Mindfulness brings us back to this moment. If there is a real problem in this moment, I address it and move on. The past and the future have no place here, so worries can’t exist. A quick way to recapture the present is to focus on the breath. Inhale deeply through the nose, then release the exhale as slowly as is comfortable, focusing only on the sensation of the air moving through your nostrils. Release thinking and focus on feeling, since you can’t do both at the same time. Body sensations are grounded in the present, join them here. Practices like yoga and meditation increase mindfulness over time. If worry is a recurring issue for you, consider beginning a regular practice of either one.
Hopefully these techniques will provide more tools to deal with worry. But sometimes worry is excessive, and causes serious problems in life, such as mood swings, lack of focus, fatigue and insomnia. In severe cases, it can lead to panic attacks. These types of serious worry and anxiety may signal the need for more intensive therapy with a professional counselor, or even medications. Please consult with a mental health professional if you are concerned your worry or anxiety may be of a serious nature.