Creating space between our thoughts and reactions is a major step in changing any habit of mind, in this case, worry...
Worry is a topic I often find myself discussing with others. These conversations come in many forms. Some people describe themselves as “worriers” or “worry warts” - people who have a lifelong history of thinking about things that could go wrong. Others have particular concerns about life circumstances, including topics such as relationships, health, or finances.
And some people have a worry life that seems to take over, creating near-constant fears. When learning about a person's worry life, I usually cue in to listen for thoughts that start with “what if…..,” because I’ve come to know that what follows those two words is often a fear, and something that has been churning in the speaker’s mind.
“Worry” is defined in general as a state of mind that stirs up our emotions about things that have gone, or could go, wrong in life. In my work treating anxiety and stress, I find it useful to think of worry as a habit of mind. Not a feeling per se, but a type of thought that is prone to focus on a feared outcome and get stuck there. When fear thoughts really “stick,” or are very upsetting and disruptive, a person may be diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Specific or Social Phobia, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Whether you have occasional worries about mundane things, or serious concerns that take over hours of your time, some of the following principles may be helpful in considering how you relate with your worries.
Get to know your worry patterns
A first step in any sort of change is identifying the problem, and a second is being able to recognize when it’s happening. If you want to worry less, or to feel less anxious, a good place to start is in identifying the topics you generally worry about, and then noticing the times and places when your worry/anxiety is most likely to occur (to track patterns effectively, you could keep a simple daily log or use one of the many apps available for tracking mood and thoughts). For a lot of people, worry peaks at either the start or end of the day, when they are alone with their thoughts, contemplating the new day or the day just ending. For others, worry peaks in particular social or “performance” sorts of situations, when there is a risk of feeling judged.
Being able to name your “triggers” or “hot buttons” allows you to note to yourself when they are happening. When we begin to notice times that we routinely worry, we can observe that to ourselves in the moment, saying “I’m having a lot of worry thoughts right now” or “my mind is running wild….I’m having lots of ‘what if’ thoughts.” That sort of labeling of our own experience is a step toward being more mindful, creating a bit of distance between our thoughts and our reactions.
Take a hold of your mind
Creating space between our thoughts and reactions is a major step in changing any habit of mind. By identifying what’s happening in our own minds, we create an opportunity to choose a response, instead of reacting mindlessly. I can dig in to my worries, getting progressively more tense and anxious, or I can choose a productive response. We refer to this step as “taking a hold of your mind,” because it moves us from a reactive, “mindless” answer to worry and into a more planful or deliberate response.
Responses to change a habit of worry:
- stopping or slowing down one’s thoughts
- taking one or more deep breaths from the diaphragm
- redirecting or shifting our focus to other, unrelated thoughts
- challenging the accuracy of our “what if” thoughts
Make specific changes
In that worry focuses on what could go wrong, another step for reducing worry is to consider any specific changes we need to make in order to reduce our stress. Consider the theme of your most common worries and then consider if there are some specific changes that will relieve your anxiety. This is a matter of first considering what is and is not within your control around a particular worry.
For instance, if I am chronically worried about being late, do I need to start getting up and leaving fifteen minutes earlier in the morning? If financial concerns plague me, do I need to spend some time clarifying my budget and spending patterns? Other concrete changes might include having more frequent reviews with one’s partner or supervisor, reviewing the calendar or menu for the week on Sunday, etc.
Considering worry as a habit of mind that can be shifted over time allows us to practice constructive changes, moving toward a less worried outlook, and hopefully, more peace.