For many people, excessive worry is a part of their everyday lives; so much so, that I frequently hear, ‘I worry if I have nothing to worry about!’.
Why do we worry?
The majority of excessive worriers learn this behaviour as a child. Typically they have a parent or primary caregiver who worries, and they subconsciously adopt the same behaviour as part of their early programming/conditioning.
As children, we typically have no other references than what we see/hear from the adults we spend the most around. As a result, subconsciously we copy them, as we have no reason not to believe that what they are doing/saying is correct.
What happens to us when we worry?
‘Our minds can’t tell the difference between a real and imagined scenario”
This is VERY important. Our body reacts in the same way to a perceived threat, as it does to a real one and triggers the stress response (i.e. fight/flight/freeze).
For example, if you walk down the street on a dark night and hear footsteps behind you, an entirely appropriate reaction is for your subconscious to fire stress response enabling you to physically fight, run or freeze. The problem with this is that your subconscious produces the same chemical output to an imagined threat. When you worry, creating worse case scenarios in your mind, your subconscious cannot tell the difference between that and a real-life threat and responds accordingly.
Tools for Managing Worry
There are lots of techniques for managing worry which I’ve tried with numerous clients over the years. However, from their feedback, I consider these three to be the most effective:
1. Control your thoughts
Your thoughts are not plopped in your head by a superhuman being; you create every single one of them (and we have up to 60,000 a day!). If you are having unhelpful, negative thoughts, such as worry, stress, anxiety, you can change them instantly by actively choosing to think about something else; we can’t have two thoughts at once, it’s impossible.
As soon as you notice yourself having a thought that isn’t serving you, immediately change it to something else. (It may be helpful to have a pre-prepared list of things that make you smile or happy, as often it can be hard to think of something positive when you’re on a negative spiral).
Research has shown that up to 95% of our thoughts are the same as the day before. Therefore, the most challenging part of consciously changing your thoughts is recognising the negative ones as they appear, especially after many years of conditioning your brain for negativity.
I also suggest checking to see if repetitive thoughts have a message, i.e. is there something you need to do but haven’t? If this is the case, such thoughts will likely repeat until you take some action to address them. In scenarios such as these, creating a plan is a great idea; there’s a huge difference between worrying and planning.
2. Choose a ‘Worry Time’
When you notice a worrisome thought, actively decide to think about it at some point later in the day, e.g. 8.00 pm. You can choose to write the problem down, although I warn against that because if you don’t, chances are you’ll forget all about what was bugging you when your ‘worry time’ arrives (which is obviously a good thing).
Allow no more than 15 minutes and do it somewhere you wouldn’t usually sit, e.g. the bottom of the stairs. The aim is to make it as uncomfortable as possible so that you spend the shortest amount of time there.
Suppose you do it somewhere comfortable, i.e. where you usually sit. In that case, you’ll be creating a negative trigger, meaning that after a short amount of time, when you sit in that exact place, your subconscious will link it with negativity and automatically produce worrisome thoughts.
Do your worrying and then let it go. If anything else pops up after your allotted time, put it on the list for tomorrow. That way, you’ll be narrowing your window for worry and actively controlling your thoughts.
3. Choose a ‘Worry Day’
Choosing a Worry Day (e.g. Worry Wednesday) works in the same way as No 2. When a concern pops up any other time during the week, choose to delay thinking about it until your worry day (unless it is something where you need to take immediate action).
Again, choose a specific time window, e.g. half an hour at 8.00 pm, to think about your problems and do it somewhere uncomfortable. Of course, you can write things down as issues pop up during the week; however, again, I’d warn against that. Typically, when your allocated day/time comes around, chances are, you’ll have forgotten about minor issues if you haven’t made a note of them.
These three techniques are ‘pattern interrupts’, i.e. they disrupt old programmed patterns that you learnt as a child; this is how new habits get created (science has proven that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!). When you do something for the first time, you create a neural pathway in your brain. The more you do that new behaviour or action, the deeper the pathway becomes.
Typically, it’s believed that new habits take 21 days to create, i.e. for the neural pathway to become deep enough for the pattern to become automatic and replace your old behaviour. Therefore, the more you practise these simple, easy to use techniques, the quicker you’ll see a reduction in your negative thoughts; the most challenging part will be recognising negativity in the first instance, especially after a lifetime of conditioning.
You really can learn to reduce worry; however, it does take some conscious effort.