Worry -- it's what keeps many lying awake at night and is what annoyingly gnaws away at people as they try to work, enjoy life, and relax. Unrelenting anxiety and fear can be debilitating and drain you of energy -- emotional and physical. For many people worrying has become habit and automatic. And like other habits and behaviors, it can be changed. People who worry a lot aren't able to enjoy themselves. They aren't able to focus on goals and pleasure and life for them often feels draining and lacks pleasure. Simply put: they aren't happy.
Here's how to worry less and live more:
1. Think about worrying differently
What purpose does worry serve? Does it make problems go away? Prevent them from happening? Or make them worse? If you answer these questions you'll probably realize that worrying isn't your friend -- it's merely a symptom.
2. Allow yourself time to worry
Many chronic worriers feel they have no control over it. They tell themselves things such as "just don't worry" or "don't think about it". This thought stopping approach rarely works. The reason -- it's a negative command and people simply don't process these well. It forces you to think about the very thing you're trying to avoid.
For example, "I don't want you to think about a zebra with pink and blue stripes." In order to not think about such a zebra, you need to first imagine what one looks like. So, if I tell you, "don't worry about X" you need to actually think about X in order not to think about it. That said, I want you to designate time to worry. Allow yourself 15 minutes a day to let it rip. Choose a time when you're usually most relaxed, but not near bedtime. Let your thoughts gush. Heck, if you want to, worry more intensely during this period than you normally do.
Paradoxically this exercise will give you control over something you otherwise feel you have no control over. It works for countless patients of mine and it will work for you, too.
Ask yourself: do I have control over the issue? So many of the things people worry about they have absolutely no control over yet it dominates their thinking. For example, the weather. We can't control it but we can certainly prepare for it.
4. Fact or fiction?
On a piece of paper make four columns. On the far left write the worry you're having. In the next column identify whether it is fact or fiction and if there's any real evidence to support your belief. Then write an alternative way of thinking and finally, think about whether the original thought was helpful or not. So here's an example of someone who has tickets for a Broadway show on Friday and is worried she may miss it if she gets sick:
1. "I'm worried I'll get sick and have to miss the show on Friday." 2. I'm not sick now so the thought is unwarranted and fiction. 3. I'll make sure I take care of myself and get proper rest so I am healthy for my show. 4. "I didn't get sick and I did in fact make it to the show. My worries were needless and didn't affect my health."
5. Take action
There's a big difference between worrying and problem solving. The former is about repeating thoughts that are unhelpful and leads to more stress and worry and gets in the way of actually enjoying life and being productive. The latter is focused on getting out of the current way of thinking and making life better. Put on your problem-solver hat and think about solutions. How might you advise a friend who has a similar concern? What steps would you take to ensure a solution? Take action now.
6. Make friends with uncertainty
Feel okay about not knowing exactly how things will turn out. Accept the unpredictability of life. Can you imagine how dull life would be if we knew everything that would happen? Think of all that is right with life and embrace ambiguity.
So next time you find yourself overwhelmed with worry, take a deep breath and know that it's normal and by changing just a few ways that you think you can change it.