Worry is a chain of negative thoughts about bad things that might happen in the future (Brene Brown, “Altas of the Heart”). It is a coping strategy we tend to employ when we feel anxious because we think (perhaps subconsciously) that it is helpful.
Worrying feels productive.
For those of us who like to plan ahead and prepare ourselves to avoid potential problems or failures, worrying can feel like you are anticipating and thinking through those possible outcomes.
When worrying is not excessive it can be productive, supporting our survival and driving problem-solving. It can help us take action and get to a positive outcome. Sometimes there are genuine, realistic reasons to worry so you don’t have to get rid of worry altogether.
Excessive worry, however, is linked with anxiety and can be detrimental to our wellbeing. The more we dwell on worry thoughts the more real they feel and the more our brain will repeat them. Excessive worry can create hypervigilance where we are in a constant state of alert and overstimulation, compromising our ability to cope with stress. This sort of worry rarely does anything to improve the situation but it makes us feel much worse.
So how do you stop worrying?
Here are 4 strategies you can use to worry less.
1. Drop anchor in the midst of your mental and emotional worry storm
Our worry thoughts can be overwhelming. The feelings that are triggered can also be overwhelming. It’s as if we’re in the midst of a terrible storm.
Suppressing worry can have the same effect as focusing on it more – it can fuel your worry further. When you try to push the worry thoughts away without acknowledging them, it’s as if they turn up the volume and intensity to get your attention.
The three steps of ACE are:
Acknowledge thoughts and feelings
You are not your thoughts. You are a curious observer of your thoughts and feelings, so notice and acknowledge whatever thoughts and associated feelings are showing up inside you without judgement. Avoid minimising or exaggerating them. Just accept them as they are.
You might also pay attention to how they feel in your body. For instance, do you feel a tightness in your chest or tension in your head?
Here’s an example of what the A in ACE could sound like:
“I notice the thought that my child is going to be scared.
I notice a feeling of fear.
I feel a tightness and heaviness in my chest.”
Come back to your body
Our worry thoughts can feel out of control so it can help to turn your focus to something you do have control over – your physical actions.
Some great options to try are:
– Pushing your feet onto the floor
– Changing your posture
– Pressing your fingertips together
– Stretching your neck
– Slowing your breathing.
This is not about avoiding or distracting yourself from what is happening in your inner world. You remain aware of your worry thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their presence while connecting with your body.
Engage with your surroundings
Now, come back to the world around you. Get a sense of where you are and refocus your attention on your surroundings. Your senses are a guide for doing this – what can you see, hear, smell, feel and taste? You can pick one sense and focus on that, or use more than one. See what works for you.
If your worry is still intense, repeat ACE 2-3 times until you feel more centred and then give your full attention to whatever task you need to be doing at that moment. What’s the ONE next thing you need to do right now? This may or may not be related to your worry.
2. Identify what is in your circle of control
Worry can help us feel like we have more control, but it’s an illusion because worry thoughts often focus on things that we can’t control (the lack of control is exactly the reason they are scary!).
The circle of control is a great tool to help you figure out where to focus, because focusing on things you can’t control really does nothing to change the situation.
Use this concept to break a situation down into the things you can control, the things you can influence and the things that affect or concern you but you have no control or influence over.
Whenever you are worried about something, ask yourself:
What about this situation is within my control?
What about this situation can I influence?
What about this situation do I have no control or influence over and therefore I can let go?
Here is an example of the circles as a guide:
3. Find another possible positive outcome
When we are hooked by excessive worry, we have tunnel vision focusing only on the possible negative outcomes. We forget that there may also be more positive possible outcomes.
For example, let’s imagine you are worried that your child won’t get to stay in the same room or class as their friend in childcare or school and that they may feel scared, lonely or not want to go at all.
This is absolutely a possibility. However, ask yourself whether there are also other more positive possibilities, such as:
– Your child does get to stay with their friend.
– Your child makes a new friend.
– Your child builds confidence and realises they can do hard things.
– You get to support your child through a difficult time and show them how to be courageous, solve problems and manage their uncomfortable feelings.
– Your child maintains their relationship with their friend by spending time with them at other times and builds other friendships.
Which of these is more likely? Sometimes the positive options are equally as likely! We could focus on any of them, but the options we choose to focus on change the way we feel.
4. Supportive self-talk
When experiencing difficult times, we can be our own ally and comfort. Without denying the reality of the situation, we can show ourselves kindness, warmth and understanding.
Many of us tend to speak quite harshly to ourselves, so it may take practice to find a more supportive voice. Here are some examples:
I’m wishing there was a guarantee that everything will be okay, but there are no guarantees in life. Whatever happens, I will figure things out.
So many mothers worry about whether they are doing a good job and today I’m wondering about this too. If a friend felt like this, what would I say to her?
Uncertainty is tough, but when I focus on all the possible outcomes I feel more anxious. I will focus on what I can do right now to release some stress.
Just because I think I’m in danger/my child is in danger, it doesn’t mean that I am/they are. I notice uncomfortable feelings. I’m uncomfortable but not in danger.
Find what works for you
Building a toolkit of strategies that help you through difficult times is so valuable. Try different strategies and see which ones feel more supportive and provide relief for you. They may feel tricky at first, but with practice, they will come more naturally and be easier to recall in the moment.
Which will you try first?