Odds are, you’re a worrier – or at the very least, someone really close to you is. In many ways, the average human life in 2015 is safer and easier and healthier than human life has ever been, and yet, most of us devote massive chunks of our energy worrying about all the bad stuff that isn’t happening, but could at some random point in the future. I can’t count how many times growing up my mom would shout “be careful!” as her parting words when I made my way out the door for the day, as if that was some magic spell that stopped me from getting hurt or into trouble. Back then I rolled my eyes every time, but now I say the same thing to everyone in my own life! Even if you didn’t inherit worrying habits from your family, you, like everyone on this planet, has the both blessing and curse of living in a hyper-connected world.
You don’t need me to tell you that we live in constant information overload, with our constant access to CNN and feeds explaining what kind of sandwich that one chick we sat next to in tenth grade biology ate today and minute-to-minute updates of every worldwide crisis and talk show hosts who make their living off of cultivating viewers’ panic. a profit off of our panic and cultivate it so they can continue doing so. We live in a culture of fear. And yes, there’s a lot to be afraid of. But there’s a lot to be happy about too, and those things can’t be fully enjoyed when we’re too busy being worried. It’s not our fault – the human mind is essentially programmed to focus on worst-case scenarios – but that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to just sit back and let the worry machine take over our sanity. Worrying is exhausting!
Look in front of you. Are you sitting in a chair? Are you standing in line for a coffee? Turn your head to your left and right. Do you see the world crumbling around you? Do you see mass panic? Hmm, nope. You’re still breathing, right? Are you hungry? If you are, I’ll bet there’s food accessible to you pretty close to where you are. You have access to a glowing screen to stare at, which means you’ve also got access to all kinds of answers about every problem under the sun and a connection to strangers all over the world going through the same things. Still breathing? Good. None of the things you’re worried about are happening right now! Well maybe they are, even as I write this, but they’re not physically disrupting your ability to stay alive or to read an article on the internet, so hey, it’s not so bad!
We’re all just fine, is my point. Most of what we’re scared of happens only in our imagination, and even the terrible things that happen in real life have much more power before or after the fact, when it’s just us and our thoughts and our tendencies to catastrophize. We deserve better than to go through life like stressed-out zombies! Like any other mental habit, worrying is about much more than the things we’re afraid of on the surface, so try a few of these worry-busting methods to break free!
1. Be curious instead of afraid. Remember when you were a kid and everything was a huge deal? Ice cream truck stopped on your street? Time for a full-on celebration! Dad watering the plants in the backyard? OMG BEST DAY EVER TIME TO RUN THROUGH THE HOSE I’VE NEVER BEEN THIS THRILLED IN MY LIFE. It’s nearly impossible to retrieve that level of excitability as a grown-up, which is probably a good thing since we don’t need a bunch of grown adults skipping work to run through sprinklers and blow bubbles all day, but revisiting some of that joy is a lovely way to reconnect with the positives of everyday life. There are so many amazing things happening every second that we don’t even notice because we’re too busy worrying, and this is where the lesson comes – when kids are confronted with something new, they’re often so curious that they forget to be scared. What if we approached new and uncertain situations with curiosity instead of fear? A little sense of wonder is a great reminder that many of our worries aren’t so scary after all.
2. Write your worries down. A big source of anxiety isn’t just our initial worries themselves, but the fear that we’ll forget them and subsequently be unprepared for some future event or crisis. We want to be on top of everything and consider all options, and in our attempt to do that, we forget to focus on whatever is in front of us – as well as cling to our worrying habit because we’ve found a way to tell ourselves that overthinking things makes us more responsible. Well, it doesn’t, and this tendency is especially damaging at work when we’re unable to work on the task in front of us because we’re so busy agonizing over a task that won’t be relevant until several days from now. Each time you think of something you’re worried about or want to consider, write it down in a designated notebook or file on your phone for safekeeping until the time arrives to actually put those thoughts to use. Look how much more efficient you are when you’re not bogged down by thousands of unprocessed thoughts bouncing around in your head! On that same note, consider revamping your personal system of organizing yoru calendar and to-dos, because worrying you’ll forget all your appointments is a fabulous energy suck.
3. Look for patterns, both real and otherwise. When you start recording your worries, you’ll probably start to notice that you worry about the same exact things day in and day out – or at the very least, your worries fit within the same few patterns and themes. This realization can be comforting, because you start to see that despite all that worrying, life trudges on as it always does. It also helps you to notice that if you worry about something regularly, the fact that it suddenly popped into your head is not an omen – it’s just your mind running through the same course that it does every day. It’s also important to consider that you might be, for lack of a better way to phrase it, imagining patterns where there are none. I was talking to my friend Melissa the other night about the absurdity of life, and how scary changes can happen out of nowhere and how much that terrifies me. Ridiculous as it seems, I told her I had to stop talking about it because I felt like every time I talked about life’s potential for craziness or about my big fears, something bad happened shortly afterward. She reminded me that I only feel this way because my mind conveniently forgets all the times I talked about my fears and life went on as normal, because, well, it wasn’t notable enough for my brain to dwell on. Human minds look for meanings and predictable patterns in our reality, so we cluster together aspects of our bad experiences that actually had nothing to do with the experience at all.
4. Set a designated time to worry. Set aside a few minutes at the same time each day to mull over all your worries at once, especially the ones you’ve written down in fear of forgetting. The catch, of course, is that you’re not allowed to dwell on your fears the rest of the day and must set them all aside for your designated worrying time. Sounds pretty silly, right? For one, this habit can remind you of how irrational our worries can sometimes become, and it also allows you to parse through them and consider what’s really worth spending time thinking about. Some worries our based on real problems we can work to solve, and some are based on hypotheticals beyond our control that haven’t even happened (and may not ever). It’s pretty clear which of those are actually worth loaning some of our headspace to. Another great thing about this practice is that it trains your mind to set aside sudden worries instead of letting them derail your day.
5. Do scary things! Not dangerous things, but do the things that make you inexplicably nervous. Try attending a new class after work by yourself or getting on a plane even though they freak you out. When you force yourself to confront your worries and see that those activities are not a guaranteed path to Bad Things Happening, those worries lose lots of their power.
6. Think about the worst that could happen. Really think about it. What if you lost your job? You’d be broke, right? So then what if you couldn’t find another job? What if you got evicted? What if you moved in with a friend or family member to get back on your feet? You’d still be breathing, right? And you’d probably still have your most basic needs met. Keep going with these what-ifs until you get to the very bottom of your fear, and you’ll have proven your mind wrong about just how fatal that fear is.
7. Get some perspective. Most things matter less than we think they do, but it’s so hard to convince ourselves of that fact. Spend some time on an engaging new hobby, side hustle or volunteer work to feel useful and to preoccupy mind so you can’t obsess over your fears. Volunteering can also be a great reminder of the fact that there are lots of bighearted people out there in the world and that the universe is not such a hostile place.
8. Reframe how you view worrying. Some of us see worrying as fuel to keep us more responsible – this keeps us stuck in a harmful mental cycle. There are other ways to be on top of things and prepared for your day – like a great organization system! On the other hand, others know that excessive worrying isn’t very healthy, which just makes them worry more and feel ashamed on top of it. Don’t associate your worries with your character, they’re a habit, and they have nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” you are.
9. Think of all the things you would do if you weren’t afraid. How many relatively low-risk activities have you missed out on because you were worried about trying them? How many bold, life-changing ideas have you avoided because you were scared? Sometimes just realizing how much we’ve lost to fears can be motivating enough. It’s not as if the people who do go after big life changes don’t get worried, they just work through it — and you can too.
10. Try some breathing or visualizing exercises to refocus your mind. Yeah, they’re kind of embarrassing, but they can work, so who cares!? Try some of the exercises mentioned here and here, and try this great visualization trick.
11. Practice letting thoughts and emotions flow through you. Often, the agony or worrying about or anticipating a stressful situation is much worse than the event itself. Worrying is somewhat like pulling off a Band-aid verrrryyyyy slowly. The resistance to the pain is more brutal than the actual pain, and takes a lot longer to endure. Say someone is so terrified of losing her job that each night as she lays in bed, she can’t help but imagine it happening. As she gets more and more involved in visualizing this, her body starts to react as if it’s actually happening and she feels tense and anxious. But she still has a job! She put herself through the exact reaction she’d have if she were fired, so she essentially put herself through the very thing she’s most terrified of – and all for no reason! Whether she is ever fired or not, she’s now made her experience with her job that much more unpleasant. I say all of this to point out that most of us could benefit from learning to let feelings pass in and out of our minds more easily and focus on what’s happening in the present.
Being present is no simple feat (more to come on that in a future post), but doing so whenever possible can help take off the edge of having a worry-prone personality. When we worry, we’re living in a hypothetical future instead of appreciating the very fleeting people and surroundings in front of us. If some of your worries have to do with losing the parts of your life that you love, well, wasting time focusing on that while you have the chance to enjoy those things isn’t doing you any favors. Lately I’ve been reading “Who Dies?” by Stephen Levine, which is apparently something of a staple to some, and I love the way he uses the book to talk about fear and openness (what I’m saying is, read it!). Digging in our heels and clinging desperately to our current reality may seem appealing when we feel that we have a lot to lose, but both good and bad times will come regardless of how much we try to keep the things we cherish within our grip. Even more significant, we never know what unexpected events will lead to, and they’re often not as bad as they appear to be on the surface. When you’re living life afraid of every step you take will end in catastrophe, it’s like you’re mental curled up in the fetal position. You’re desperately grasping for a control that doesn’t exist, and that makes the disappointments that much harder when they do come.
Our willingness to live with uncertainty directly correlates with how big our lives can be, because our fear or staring down uncertainty not only gives life to all our worries, it keeps us in a cage of our own making and traps us in routines we’re too afraid to break away from. If we can be open to the fact that uncertainty is inescapable and anything could happen on any given day, and can do so without driving ourselves up the wall with the anxiety of that reality, life will be a hell of a lot more enjoyable and more fully lived. Obviously, that’s a pretty superhuman thing to do, especially if we have to get up and go to work and school every day instead of sitting around in a yoga studio singing Kumbayah. I don’t know how possible it is for the average person to be that zenned out because we’ve all got shit to do and real stressors to contend with, but I think constantly aiming for openness and course correcting in that direction when we get especially anxious is a path toward much fewer nights spent waking up at 2 a.m. to agonize over whether you remembered to hit “send” on that TPS report at the office twelve hours earlier. When a worry makes your entire being want to tense in negativity, try to let that feeling flow right through you and then back out again – or save it for your set-aside “worrying time” and do so then.
Original By: Claire Hannum