More now than ever, you can find yourself consumed with worry and anxiety about what’s coming around the corner. I won’t go through the list of events and situations you might find being publicized (after all this is supposed to help your worry, not make it worse), but suffice to say, there’s a lot out there. Of course, “worry,” isn’t anything new. Many of us have experienced it for years, in good times and in bad. Sometimes there’s good reasons to worry (your car warning light is on) and sometimes there’s not. Either way, you can find “worry” taking over and negatively impacting your day-to-day life. If this is the case, there are things you can do about it. As you prepare to use these strategies, note that they work really well in combination.
1. Become aware it’s non-productive
One of the reasons people “worry” is because they’re trying to protect themselves from future negative outcomes by having correctly identified a way to avoid it or get through it unharmed. For example, say I find myself worrying about what might happen if my kids gets bullied at school. I might be envisioning that experience, what I would do to intervene, who I might talk to and even the resulting long-term impact it could have. Did you know that “worrying” doesn’t do a good job of helping you prepare or protect you from possible situations? In a recent article titled “Why are worriers so bad at worrying?”Graham Davey, Ph.D. summarizes the research in this area to indicate that up to 90% of what worriers concern themselves with, never happens. So, when we find ourselves consumed, analyzing and rehashing every possible outcome we can remind ourselves that worrying isn’t actually going to benefit us.
2. Reality Test
When we find ourselves rolling through the many “what if” questions that pop to mind, we can “reality test” them. What is the likelihood X might occur? Well, there’s a lot of things that are possible, but unlikely. Is it possible I might get into a car accident on any given day? Sure, but if you take basic precautions, it’s unlikely. The reality is that most people rarely or never get into car accidents if they adhere to fundamental good driving habits. When you find a “what if…” coming to mind, use reality testing to guide your thinking.
3. Review what you can control and what you can’t
There are many things in our life that we can’t control. That might be a scary sentence to read, but it’s true. We largely know what can create a healthy and happy lifestyle, but things happen. If something happens to you, you can control how you respond. Trying to control something you fundamentally can’t, leads to many problems. There’s peace in identifying what you can and can’t control (think of the Serenity Prayer).
4. Give yourself permission to “put it down”
This technique involves acknowledging your worry or fear and allowing yourself to let it go. The visualization I sometimes recommend is like putting a book on a bookshelf in the room you’re in. You’ve recognized the worry for what it is, examined it, broken it down into what is realistic or unrealistic, what you can control or can’t control and now you allow yourself to set it down. You might use self-dialogue to tell yourself that any further examination isn’t needed (or helpful) and that you’re now letting it go (or putting it on the shelf). You can “put it down” and choose to focus on something else.
5. Review self-efficacy
It’s important to build your sense of confidence that come what may, you’ll be able to deal with it. Sure there are exceptions, but if you can’t directly fix it, solve it or make it go away…you can get help. Remind yourself of the past negative events, past situations that caught you off guard or unaware and how you were able to deal with it. Or maybe you imagined a possible situation to be much worse than it turned out to be. In the end, you did what you needed to do to get a positive (or even neutral) outcome. You got this!
6. Look at the big picture
Life isn’t always easy (spoiler alert) but there’s also lots of good experiences, events and outcomes. It’s not all bad. Again, we can’t control everything but even in the things that we can’t control, sometimes they work out OK (or better than we could have expected). Maybe you lose your job (or find yourself trapped in a toxic work environment) but it becomes the push you need to try something totally different; leading you to great success. Don’t let yourself become Eeyore.
7. Slow your body/mind through physical interventions
When we worry, it’s very likely our body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This means our bodies tense up, our adrenaline gets a boost, digestion and blood flow respond correspondingly. This isn’t bad if a bear appears on the path ahead, but if it’s raining and we begin to worry about the health of our roof, it’s not helpful. It’s at this point we need to intentionally slow our breathing, relax our muscles and focus our attention on something else. We actually think better when we’re more relaxed.
8. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Depending on the severity of your worry, you might find Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (an evidence based practice) to be of great assistance. It helps us recognize negative patterns of thinking and teaches us to create new, healthy patterns. Maybe past experiences that we’ve never examined are driving the fear/worry and we might need professional intervention. Working with someone skilled in this area can produce significant improvement.