Dealing with Worry, Part 2
Updated: May 15, 2021
In Part 1 of Dealing with Worry, I described what it is, why we do it, and how it creates suffering. Here is a quick recap:
"Worry robs us of our ability to be present in our lives. It takes us away from what is important and leaves our minds preoccupied with potential problems that are unlikely to materialize. Furthermore, it puts us at risk for anxiety disorders, as well as stress related illnesses."
As I stated in my previous post on worry, the number one step to take in dealing with worry is to catch yourself worrying.
The goal is to practice noticing when the worrying is happening, and to see how it impacts you in terms of particular themes and patterns, as well as the symptoms in your body. Ask yourself if the same content repeats. Ask yourself whether there is tension present during the worry, and identify where the tension is located.
The key here is that you are not just caught up in the worry, but you are aware that it is happening. You are becoming more aware of the negative impact that it has on you.
Once you gain more awareness of your worry, the opportunity is opened for change.
If you are already noticing your worry, great! You have made the first and critical step in diminishing the grip of worry in your life. But, you can’t just tell yourself to stop worrying. Have you ever tried that? I bet it didn’t work very well. Instead of engaging in a battle with the worry, we need to learn to redirect it, and pay less attention to it.
One way of redirecting the worry is to examine the worry and distill what part of it might contain a meaningful problem that needs to be addressed. As you examine and look at your worry and look more closely, ask whether the thoughts that make up the worry are actually helping you or not. Are they getting you closer to solving a real problem in your life? Are they helping you discern an important decision?
If there is an issue in your life that needs resolution, engaging in thoughts about it makes sense and can be healthy.
But, remember, with worry our thoughts about the problem are in excess of what is needed to solve it.
The thoughts may only be serving to rehash what has already been thought about, which keeps you stuck in a worry loop. For instance, you may worry persistently about finances. But within that worry there are problems that can be solved, getting you closer to your financial goals.
Once you have decided that you really do need to tackle a specific problem, it can be very helpful to designate a time and space to focus on it. I call this Designated Problem Solving.
You might have a journal or workbook that you open at certain times of day. During that time you can jot down ideas about solving the problem, or make a list of steps to take. Perhaps enlist the help of a friend or expert who has special knowledge of the topic.
The benefit with this strategy is that you have designated time to work out the problem, and you can remind yourself that you don’t need to think about it at other times. So if you are thinking about how you will pay the rent while watching a movie, say to yourself, “Oh, there’s my worry! But you don’t need to think about this now because you are working on it already.”
Designated Problem Solving can be particularly useful when worry occurs before bed, or when you wake up in the middle of the night. Jot down the important problem, close the journal, and go back to sleep. You can address it at a designated time the next day.
Another strategy for redirecting worry is to evaluate the accuracy of the worried thoughts.
Ask yourself whether the content of the worry is accurate. Does it represent reality, or is it an overestimate of the problem? For instance, if you find yourself worrying about being homeless, step back and ask whether this is a likely outcome. When you have these thoughts in the future, remind yourself that they are just worries and not necessarily true.
I often see this over-estimation type worry with health related concerns. For instance, say you have a mild twitching in your leg and you worry that you might have ALS. Instead of researching on google, step back and evaluate the likelihood that this is true.
We all have various strange physical sensations from time to time, but the vast majority of these sensations are completely benign. If the problem worsens or persists, have it evaluated by your doctor.
One strategy that has been used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies is to write down the thoughts that make up the worry. Then, in a column next to these thoughts, come up with some alternative thoughts that might be more accurate. For example:
Exaggerated Thought: “If I don’t get this job, I will never succeed.”
Alternative Thought: “I want the job and will be disappointed if I don’t get it, but there are lots of other opportunities.”
Practice writing down these thoughts whenever you notice that you are worrying, and try using the alternative thoughts even if you don’t quite believe them yet.
Ok, so after you have determined that the worry is not helping you, and that it may not even be reality-based, you may notice that it still doesn’t disappear. This is because we can’t rid ourselves of worry entirely, it’s not possible. The goal is not to completely rid ourselves of anxious thoughts, but to practice letting them go. It's as if you are saying, “I see you there, but I don’t need you”. The first worried thought is the hook, and we consciously decide not to take the bait.
To some of you, this will sound impossible. How do I just let go of worry?! The truth is that it is not easy. But with every bit of practice, we can become better at it. Sometimes it will be easier than other times, based on where we are at the moment. If we are stressed, it is much harder. If we are calm it can seem easy.
This is where mindfulness practice comes in.
Mindfulness practice helps us to become more skilled at letting go of worry. When we are worried, we are either focused on the past or on the future. Mindfulness practice focuses us on the here and now, and helps us to accept the things that we don’t like, but can’t always change. Quite simply, and very powerfully, bringing our mental focus to the present helps us to get out of the worry trap.
If you are already becoming more aware of your worry, you are being mindful! In many ways, mindfulness simply means being aware. However, it is important not to reprimand yourself when you notice the worry. Rather, gently acknowledge that the worry is happening and that it's not serving a useful purpose.
Next, return your focus from the worried thoughts to the present moment.
You can do this by turning your attention toward what you take in through your senses. For example, how you feel in your body. Are you tense? Are there butterflies in your stomach? Pause to simply notice and follow these sensations as they are occurring. What are the sounds that are present? Spend a few minutes receiving the richness of the sounds that are often present but ignored. Or, simply feel your feet touching the ground.
Aside from the ever-present opportunities to return to the present moment each time you worry, you might set aside some time to do a formal guided meditation. There are several ideas, but I like to use visualization exercises that help you to see that you are separate from your thoughts. You might imagine them as clouds passing by in the sky, or as leaves floating on a stream. You are the sky or the riverbank, and the thoughts are the clouds or the leaves.
In summary, here are the steps for using mindfulness to deal with worry:
Notice the worry.
Gently remind yourself that worry is not helping.
Identify worry as a function of your mind (remember that they are programmed for worry), and not necessarily reality.
Return to the present moment by focusing on your senses.
Use visualization exercises that will help you to disengage with worried thoughts. Try this one.
Repeat these steps whenever worry arises. It may not seem like you are making progress at first, but your brain is actually beginning to change with each attempt!