How to Stop Worrying and Reduce Anxiety
We live in a worrisome time. COVID-19 and all its related concerns — from health to finances to social isolation — has created fertile ground for stress, anxiety and excessive worry. The concerns of life pre-virus have likely not faded away. There are some new trending behaviors, e.g. hand-washing, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place. Daily COVID-related changes are contributing to an old behavior literally going viral. What’s that? Worry.
Once you were stocked up and hunkered down, you may have even discovered your fears were magnified.
Hand-washing or social distancing are productive forms of planning ahead. We know it reduces the chances of disease transmission so we follow the guidelines and feel more in control. Worrying, though, is a less productive way of managing future possibilities. Rather than taking proven steps or resolving current concerns, we can get mired in apprehension, helplessness, or habits that keep us stuck. Learning how to stop worrying can take some time, but can reduce your anxiety overall.
Is Feeling Worried Cause for Concern?
Words like “worry” or “anxious” mostly have a negative connotation. This is neither fair nor accurate. If we feel anxious about something, this sensation can warn us about a risk or danger. It allows us to prepare in advance. Worry and anxiety help us to adapt to our situation and environment and take the action we need to stay safe.
What can you do about worry? It’s helpful to accept it as natural and inevitable — especially when faced with a circumstance beyond your control…such as a global pandemic. It can also be helpful to gently take stock in how often this worry is being felt and expressed. Let’s recap:
- Anxiety is inevitable and often very important for coping and planning
- The global community is right now in the midst of a very disturbing crisis
- Feeling afraid is a normal response
Recognizing Excessive Worry
Everyone worries from time to time. Life can present us with some very worrisome situations. What you need to know about worry is that it can shift from a normal, often helpful emotion to overwhelm if it progresses unchecked. The way you process worry creates a related set of images and thoughts. If you remain unaware, they can promote the unhealthy habit of catastrophic thinking. Even the smallest worry feels out of your control and threatens to grow into existential dread.
Obsessive and reflexive worry takes our mind to worst-case scenario thinking. We are aware that a problem may be lurking. Yet, we default to an anxious place in which we feel unable to prepare. Instead, we remain in a worry cycle — feeling unhappily certain that we will not be able to handle what is about to happen.
The healthy anxiety cycle may be disrupted if you are experiencing any of these signs:
- Friends or loved ones commenting on your anxious behavior
- Obsessive checking of digital notifications
- You automatically assume the worst
- It’s been forever since you had a fun, relaxing time
Physical Symptoms of Worry
Also, worry can also provoke a range of physical and emotional symptoms that may impact your daily functionality. Here are just a few examples:
- Sleep disturbances
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Restlessness, edginess, and irritability
- Tight muscles, unexplained aches
- Changes in eating habits
If you experience chronic worry this may be all too familiar. Perhaps you’ve had these thoughts in the past. What if I made a mistake at work? What if my child is sick? What if I they don’t like me? What if I can’t handle the stress?
“How do I stop worrying?” may be the question you struggle with most as you quarantine, navigate a return to work, or look forward to new norms for interacting with others. Beyond identifying the causes, types, and concerns related to anxiety, managing anxiety is an exercise in discernment, self-soothing, and problem-solving. This time around, let’s get into solution mode.
If any of this sounds familiar, worry may be consuming too much life. To preserve your wellbeing, consider the following steps to learn how to stop worrying.
Understanding Different Types and Causes of Worry
To better understand worry, it helps to know the difference between hypothetical and real problems. An excellent, frightening, and timely example of an actual problem would be the COVID-19 global pandemic. It is completely understandable to experience some degree of concern about the virus.
Conversely, worrying about hypothetical problems related to the health crisis might involve unproductive rumination. You may stew over who will test positive, how many wi
ll become seriously ill, and whether you will be in either group. The solutions to the real problems are laid out in official recommendations. The solution to hypothetical ones, by design, do not exist. Even if you are isolated, hygienic, and ultra-cautious, a catastrophic thought process won’t be soothed.
In truth, virtually anything can cause worry and such anxiety can spiral. However, there are some common, well-documented triggers to consider. They usually revolve around situations that are uncertain, ambiguous or novel.
The issue capturing everyone’s attention these days is literally spawned by a “novel” coronavirus. Naturally, most of us are anxious. The question to ponder is whether or not your worry is based on the very real problem. How to stop worrying? You are wise and usually less worried when you learn to challenge the hypothetical you’ve created in your mind.
Is Your Worry Real or Hypothetical?
Worries can fall into two broad categories: real or hypothetical. This distinction may sound obvious but in a time of crisis, lines get easily blurred. You might begin by honestly observing how your worry makes you feel:
Hypothetical worry leaves you feeling:
Healthy worry conversely creates:
How to Stop Worrying by Managing What-If Thinking
People with anxiety tend to have “what if” thoughts when there is nothing wrong. Anxious thoughts can be convincing, but you need to learn to tell yourself, “my anxious thoughts aren’t true or valid.” The key is to check whether the anxiety is about something that is happening now or something that might happen. If you got put on probation at work, your anxious thoughts about your job are valid. If there is no clear evidence right now that things are wrong at work, your anxiety is getting the better of you.
Check to see why your anxious thinking might be useful and challenge it until you are clear that the anxious thought is not helpful. For example, suppose you’re anxious about your partner leaving you. Worrying about it now might help you feel more prepared when the bad news comes. Now challenge: will you be less able to pack your belongings and find a new place to live if you haven’t been worrying about it? Will you be less devastated? No! In fact, constant worrying may be taking a negative toll on your relationship.
Make a plan. If you are worried that something might happen and there is actual evidence that it’s valid (your company is laying people off), decide how you will handle the situation. Identify the problem, decide on the goal, brainstorm solutions and select one option. If you continue the what-if worry tell yourself, stop! I have a plan.
What type of what-if thinking do you have?
Chewing on an idea without resolving it. Does your worry relate to a previous life experience? Perhaps you worry about not being a good enough parent, and your parents were neglectful of you when you were a child. Replace your negative thought with an affirmative statement that challenges the negative thought. “I have been a caring and involved parent so far, and I will continue to be. I can break the pattern.”
Thoughts of home or workplace danger:
Did I leave the oven on? This type of thought is often the result of inattentiveness due to the preoccupied, anxious mind. Rather than being in the present, these type of worriers are in the future and performing everyday tasks on autopilot. The best antidote is to pay attention to the present moment out loud: I am turning off the oven, I am getting my wallet. I am locking the door. Then practice working on mindfulness skills to strengthen your ability to stay in the present moment.
Hypochondria worry thoughts – fearing physical symptoms are a sign of disease.
This can get worse if you begin researching symptoms online. Say the fear out loud and share with someone else. Try not to research it online, if it is serious your symptoms will be serious symptoms that you can’t ignore and signs you need to seek out help now. For lesser symptoms ask, “what would be the sign that this is important?” Perhaps the symptom is getting worse, that could be a sign that it is important. Check your symptoms at a later time to look for this sign (a rash spreading for example).
Rumination about too much to do.
Sometimes responsibilities are burdensome, but people who have difficulty prioritizing, planning, or following through may feel overwhelmed even without an exceptional burden of work. To address this type of worry: 1) make a plan and follow it. 2) do the worst first. 3) make a list with time frames.
When You Can’t Stop Worrying: Contain Your Worry
- If you are needing reassurance from others, remind yourself that you are competent to handle problems. Even if the worst happens, you’ll be able to deal with it.
- If you worry about panic remind yourself that you’ll get through it. You may want to escape, but you won’t die, go crazy or lose control. In fact, an anxiety therapist in Houston can help train you in exercises you can do to control the symptoms of panic when they surface.
- If you have social anxiety remind yourself, “even if you show some anxiety, you know how to get through it. And remember, people are more accepting than you think.”
Clear Your Mind Technique to Manage Excessive Worry
If you feel your mind jumping around or find it hard to stop it from running down a track, try this:
- Imagine a container sitting in front of you. It’s a container that can hold all of your concerns. The container is open and ready to receive whatever you want to put into it.
- Now think about (but don’t mull over) all the things that are pressing on your awareness or asking for your attention. Give each thing a name.
- When everything has been named and put in the container, place the lid on the container and set it aside.
- If the next thing you want to do is sleep, invite a peaceful thought into your mind.
- If you want to focus on something, invite into your mind thoughts about what your focus is.
Other versions of the Container Exercise:
- The list: write your thoughts in the form of a list (one or two words for each thought). Put the list in a drawer or other place out of sight (and mind).
- The God box: this technique comes from Al-Anon. Put each thought on a slip of paper, put it in a box and turn it over to God.
- Pictures in a backpack: this works well for children. Draw a picture of thoughts or worry and place it in a backpack or worry box. Periodically open the box and learn that worries pass and if bad things happened, remind the child that they got through it.
- Worry dolls: Guatemalan dolls in a box or bag. Give each doll a worry, close the box and the doll will carry the worry away. You can purchase worry dolls online here.
If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come regularly back and sort through.
Focusing on Balance and Acceptance to Stop Worrying
It’s not realistic to think you can live worry-free. Fear happens. But it doesn’t need to rule you. With that in mind, you will need these two attributes in your life:
Perceiving some anxiety as a given makes it all the more important to balance out anxious periods. Try to challenge the tendency toward catastrophizing or avoidance. Avoidance actually increases our anxiety. For example, social distancing should not imply a need for no social contact of any kind. Reach out to friends and loved ones via phone or video chat. Identify ways you can connect with others safely. Perhaps you can socially distance outdoors or in other locations with people you care about.
To achieve a balanced outlook, fill your day with upbeat and self-loving activities like:
- Health choices for eating and sleeping
Finding hobbies to take your mind off your worries can be helpful as well. Especially those that require concentration or mental focus. Activities such as knitting or coloring can give your mind something to hook onto besides worry thoughts.
This piggybacks off the need for balance. You don’t have to fight the worry. In fact, you don’t even have to entertain it until you decide you’re ready to do so. One of the supreme powers of worry is how demanding it can be. Fortunately, you have the option of accepting its existence while postponing your reactions.
Some therapists recommend setting aside “worry time” each day. With this practice, you can make peace with the situation. This promotes control of your emotions and allows time for more coherent, solution-focused thoughts. And you know you will have time set aside for worries. You can practice noticing your thoughts and reminding yourself, “I will worry about those later.”
Choose Mindfulness to Stop Worrying
Worry thrives everywhere except the here and now. The past may be filled with regrets. The future is where we store our fears. The present moment offers a sharper, more productive focus.
Mindfulness can provide a sense of control. Considering embracing meditation and/or breathing exercises to get started.
Choose Self-Compassion, Too
Try to think about worry this way: you care about yourself enough to be feeling concerned. When that concern gets excessive, be kind to yourself. Check your internal monologue. Offer yourself soothing words and encouragement.
Imagine you were consoling a worried friend or loved one. How would that conversation go?
Can’t Stop Worrying? Anxiety Treatment Can Help
All of the above suggestions still stand, but you may need more than self-help. The cycle of worry often feeds on itself and there’s no shame in seeking assistance to manage it. When there is a real problem or situation, worry is normal. However, if you struggle with anxiety, your brain may prompt you to worry when there is nothing wrong or take it to the next level.
If this sounds like you, you can benefit from anxiety counseling. With anxiety treatment, your therapist can help you learn to calm physical anxiety, cope with anxious thoughts and feelings, and create a compassionate relationship with yourself.
** Strategies adapted from:
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