In another post I have introduced the first of the 10 ways to sleep better, and given some tips about calming panic thought due to constant stress and anxiety. Now I’m going to resume and conclude the subject, focusing on how to stop obsessive worrying, which is strictly related to anxiety and stress.
So, let’s look at some tips for dealing with worry:
1. Create a worry period
2. Ask yourself if the problem is solvable
3. Accept uncertainty and challenge anxious thoughts
4. Be aware of how others affect you
5. Practice mindfulness meditation
Tip #1: Create a worry period
Trying to stop worrying simply by telling yourself to stop anxious thoughts doesn’t work, at least not for long. You have tried so many times, you know. You can succeed for a moment, but soon or later they will come back, even stronger sometimes.
“Thought stopping” technique is noxious because it forces you to pay extra attention to the very thought you want to cancel, and this makes it seem even more important. You just need a different approach.
This is where the strategy of postponing worrying comes in. Rather than trying to stop it, give yourself permission to have it, but only during a certain period of the day. Such strategy in detail consists of three steps:
- Create a “worry period”. Devote for worrying a set time and place. It could be any time, however it should be the same every day and not just before bedtime, since it could make you anxious or thoughtful while going to sleep. Don’t allow you to worry outside that period, but during your worry period, you’re allowed to worry about whatever is on your mind.
- Postpone your worry. If an anxious thought or worry arises in your mind during the day, just remind yourself that you’ll have time to think about it later, so there’s no need to worry about it right now. Make a brief note of it on paper and postpone it to your worry period, then keep on with your affairs.
- During the worry period go over your “worry list”. Reflect on the notes you wrote down during the day. If the thoughts are still troubling you, allow yourself to worry about them, but only for the amount of time devoted for your worry period. If the worries don’t seem important any more, let them go and enjoy the rest of your day.
This is an effective technique because it breaks the habit of dwelling on worries in the present moment, and avoid the inner struggle to suppress the thought or judge it. You simply save it for later. As you develop the ability to practice this technique, your control over your worrying will get better and better, more than you think.
Tip #2: Ask yourself if the problem is solvable
If a worry pops into your mind, you should at once ask yourself whether the problem is something you can actually solve or not. The following questions can help:
- Is the problem a real one or rather an imaginary “what-if”?
- If the problem is an imaginary “what-if”, how likely is it to occur? Is your concern realistic?
- If the “what-if” problem would occur, can you prepare to face it, or is it completely out of your control?
If you can take action about it, your worry is a productive and solvable one. Therefore start brainstorming: make a list of all the possible solutions you can think of. Do not get stuck on trying to find the perfect solution: better a quick though imperfect solution, than a perfect solution which will never come out. Focus on the things you have the power to change, and let go the other things beyond your control.
After you’ve evaluated your options, make a plan of action and start to follow it. Once you have a plan and start doing something about the problem, you’ll feel much less worried.
But if you’re a chronic worrier, probably most of your worries aren’t something you can solve: they have no corresponding action, and so they are unproductive. This is the point: while you are worrying about a solvable problem, your bad underlying emotions related to it are temporarily suppressed, just because you know that you are taking action on the object of your worry. In other words, worrying about solvable problems helps you avoid unpleasant emotions.
Thus, what happens if a worry about an unsolvable problem pops up in your mind? You cannot productively take action on it, and therefore you remain prey of your bad underlying feelings and start worrying about your feelings themselves: “What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t feel this way!”
The only way out of this vicious cycle is by learning to face your emotions and your feelings. You have to accept the truth that emotions and feelings — like life — are messy: neither they necessarily make sense nor they always are pleasant, nor you can tell yourself that that you shouldn’t feel certain emotions (e.g. fear, anger, etc).
But as long as you accept them as part of being human, you’ll be able to experience them without becoming overwhelmed. Accepting your emotions and your feelings, whatever they are, you can even learn how to use them to your advantage. The following tips will help you to find a better balance between your intellect and your emotions.
Tip #3: Accept uncertainty and challenge anxious thoughts
If you are a chronic worrier, you probably need to know with 100% certainty what’s going to occur: you are unable to stand doubt, to tolerate unpredictability. This plays a huge role in your anxiety. You view worrying as a way to predict what the future has in store for you; a way to prevent unpleasant surprises and control the result. But it doesn’t work.
Thinking about all the things that could go wrong neither make them any more predictable nor prevent them from going wrong actually. If you feel safer when you’re worrying, it’s just an illusion: moreover, an illusion that you pay with the impossibility to enjoy the good things you have in the present.
So if you want to stop worrying, you must let go your need for certainty and immediate answers. You can help this process by asking yourself the following questions:
- Is it possible to be certain about anything in life?
- Are there more advantages or rather disadvantages in requiring certainty?
- What’s the evidence that the concern is realistic? Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation?
- What is the likelihood of the worst scenario that I’m figuring? Is it reasonable to think that a negative outcome is always more likely than a positive or neutral one?
- Is it tolerable the small chance that something negative may happen, given its likelihood may be very low?
- Is the concern helpful? Worrying about it, will help me or rather hurt me?
- What would I say to a friend who had the same worry?
If you suffer from chronic anxiety and worries, the world may seem to you more dangerous than it really is: you may view every negative thought as a fact, overestimate the negative possibilities, jump immediately to worst-case scenarios. You may even discredit your own ability to face life’s problems.
These are pessimistic and irrational attitudes, known as cognitive distortions, which are not so easy to give up, being also part of a lifelong pattern of thinking that is become so automatic you’re not even completely aware of it. Again, the technique to deal with these attitudes is questioning yourself about the objects of your concerns, trying to dig into them and detail them as possible. You must retrain your brain in order to make it treat your concerns as hypotheses you’re testing out, instead of viewing them as real facts. In this way you will develop a more balanced perspective.
Tip #4: Be aware of how others affect you
All of us are affected by the company we keep, whether we are aware of it or not. We quickly “catch” moods from other people, and not necessarily through words. This is true for an occasional company; now, think about the tremendous influence that the people you spend a lot of time with may have on your mental state!
It is very important for you to identify which people or situations are negatively affecting you. It should be useful, for this purpose, to keep a worry diary, at least for some weeks or months. Every time you start to feel negative emotions or feelings, write down your thoughts and the situation that has triggered them. Over time, you will start to see patterns, and you wil be able to identify which people or situations mek you feel worried or in bad mood. Then, it will be easy for you to understand that you have to:
- Avoid people or situations that make you feel worried or in bad mood.
- Choose your company carefully.
Tip #5: Practice mindfulness meditation
Since worrying is usually focused on the future — on what might happen and how you’ll face it — you can get rid of your worries by bringing your attention back to the present. In doing this, you can get great help from the old practice of mindfulness meditation.
Such strategy – In contrast to the previous techniques of challenging or postponing your anxious thoughts – is based on maintaining an emotional detachment while your anxious thoughts arise in your mind: observe them carefully and then let them go. Don’t try to ignore, fight, control or judge them; simply observe them as if from an outsider’s perspective, without even reacting. This practice will improve your control over your emotions, will give clarity to your mind and will help you to identify the “bugs” in your thinking.
- Let your worries go, and you will notice that they soon pass like clouds moving across the sky, without touching your inner essence.
- Stay focused on the present. Always, in each and every moment or situation. Pay attention to your body, sensations, feelings, emotions, breathing, thoughts that drift across your mind, and if you find yourself getting stuck on a particular thought or concern, bring your attention back to the present moment.
Staying focused on the present through mindfulness meditation, is a simple concept, but obviously it takes practice to reap the benefits.
And if at first your mind will probably try to keep on wandering back to your worries, try not to get frustrated. Simply draw your focus back to the present, and be confident: over time, more and more you will reinforce a new mental habit that will help you to break free of the negative worry cycle, and start enjoying your present life.
It is a long post, sorry for that, but the subject is vast and most important, you surely understand. 😉 Feel free to leave any comments about your experience in dealing with stress, anxiety, panic thoughts, or in practicing meditation as a self-help tool.
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