There are many worriers out there: the man who constantly worries about whether he has or will get cancer or another terrible disease; the woman who lies awake at night, fearing that she will never meet the right one; the grandmother who can’t let go of the idea that the plane with her grandchildren on board might crash; the employee who can’t concentrate because he fears he may have made a mistake that will cost him his job.
They are all different, but worriers also have a lot in common: unconsciously, they see worrying as a useful strategy to get prepared and gain control. However, worries have a tendency to take over and invade their minds much of their waking hours. In vain, they try reducing it in various ineffective ways. The man runs to his doctors every week to take new tests. The woman desperately tries to battle her thoughts of being alone, keeping herself occupied or seeking confirmation from others that she will be loved. The grandmother keeps calling the airline, scours news websites for plane crashes and calls her grandchildren as soon as they land. The employee goes through all the work he has done in recent days one more time.
Most of us will understand that these strategies do not work in the long term. You may have even tried them yourself? They require a lot of time and provides only temporary relief, before the worrying knocks on the door again. Worry can be hard on ourselves and those around us. Few, however, have an understanding of how worrying tends to escalate, and what alternatives we have. We try either to force or instruct ourselves to “stop thinking about it.” Have you tried this strategy? We can test how it works. Close your eyes and imagine a polar bear for 10 seconds. Easy, right? Now, for the next minute, try not to think of a polar bear at all. Every time you think of a polar bear, you need to squeeze your hand hard.
Supply and demand of thoughts
Difficult? This task is nearly impossible for most people, because of a few simple reasons. The things we fear are like magnets for our attention. If you are afraid of dogs, you will notice them as soon as they are nearby. The thought of a polar bear is a threat in this experiment. However, what is more troublesome is the following: if you are not to think of a polar bear, you must also check if you’re thinking of a polar bear. Hence, you also need to think of a polar bear. It is an impossible rule to follow. This is important for worriers. The more we get annoyed by our thoughts or treat them as if they are important or dangerous, the more they come.
By this point, we need to make a distinction. There are two things that come into play when our minds run into chaos: the thought that triggers it, and how we relate to this thought. The triggering thought might be “My body feels heavy.” How we relate to this thought might be to worry about it, an exhausting mental repetitive activity where we run through all the possible scenarios and implications it may have. “What if the heaviness is a sign of cancer? It might be an undiagnosed testicular cancer. The doctor did not check for this the last time I went there. There may be other symptoms I have. I better Google it. I might die!”.
If our primary strategy when a scary thought comes is worrying or seeking confirmation, we treat the thought as if it is very important. That way, it becomes a polar bear and will come more often. It’s almost as if we think that thinking the thought increases the likelihood that it will happen or has already happened. In a way, our brains operate through basic marketing principles: supply and demand. If we always buy every thought we have, the offer becomes larger. We try frantically to think it through, in order to stop worrying, when we are really just reinforcing the pattern.
Try problem solving instead
This pattern is typical because at a certain level, many of us see worrying as a useful strategy. We get prepared. We find solutions. We perform better. We get an overview. But do we really? Yet another distinction: worrying is not the same as problem solving. Worrying is the mental activity in which we envision future negative events over and over. Problem solving is taking steps to reduce the likelihood of something happening or solving an actual problem. Worrying is the constant fear of getting cancer. Problem solving is to have a healthy and good diet and keeping active to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. Which one is the most effective way of reducing the risk of cancer? Negative thoughts or positive action? Similarly, checking flight times, the weather forecast or news sites for plane crashes does not reduce the likelihood of an airplane engine malfunction.
But don’t you perform better if you feel stress? That’s true! For instance, stress can motivate us to practice more or do something about the problem (i.e. problem solving). It may also make us perform better when we’re doing something demanding. But worrying tends to happen in days, months or even years before what we fear happens. Or maybe what we fear will never happen? If we really think about it, we know that worrying takes a toll on our ability to sleep and energy level. We know also that our fears tend to be much more extensive and devastating than things usually play out. Worries might be crippling, exhausting and strikingly inaccurate. Does that really make us more prepared?
It may seem obvious or even arrogant, but basically worrying is quite useless in itself. If you do not have a problem, there is no need to worry about it. But let’s say you do have a problem. If there is anything you can do to solve it or prevent it, you still don’t need to worry. You could rather engage in problem solving. If there is nothing you can do about your problem, then there is no point of worrying either. It will only make you worse.
Recognize negative thoughts
The challenge for worriers is to first recognize how worrying may tear and wear us down. It doesn’t do us any lasting physical or mental harm, but it is very stressful and exhausting. Furthermore, we must enhance the experience of control by trying new strategies to reduce our anxiety. We have to practice on recognizing negative thoughts, but actively choose not to delve into them, or use problem solving instead.
How can we treat thoughts without worrying? You can try the following exercise. Introduce a “worry break” for half an hour every night. This is not a break from worrying, but a break for worrying. The rest of the day you can postpone all your worries to this break. Try to think as follows: “There goes a negative thought about (…). The fact that the thought is here is okay, but I do not need to worry about it right now. I can postpone my worrying for later. I’ll handle it in the worry break, but let the thought itself be there now if it wants to. ”
Do not let it become a polar bear (remember the exercise above) by getting annoyed or scared. Thoughts are just thoughts. When you get to the worry break, check if you still need to worry. If you still feel like it, then do it. You can do a lot of efficient worrying or problem solving for half an hour. Afterwards, you postpone “the left-overs” for the break the next day. If you are not worried anymore, you can just skip the break.
This is just one of many techniques to reduce worrying. You can meditate to become less absorbed in your thoughts. You can practice just looking at your thoughts in a detached way. You can learn to divert your attention from worry thoughts in a friendly manner. You can reduce checking and seeking confirmation. The possibilities are many and there is good help. It all starts, however, with the recognition that the thoughts themselves are not threatening or “wrong”. It is how we treat those thoughts which is the problem.