It's normal to worry about things in life, but some people secretly believe that worrying is an effective way to problem-solve. What's effective, though? Worrying makes a person feel wound up, on edge and filled with self-doubt.
“Although they know it’s not the case, many people who worry too much also believe if they worry about something bad, it will make it less likely to happen,” says Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada in Reno and author of Women Who Worry Too Much.
Overcoming a worried mind isn’t easy, but learning new ways to look at your concerns can make it happen.
Thoughts and facts
Worries are filled with predictions, expectations and assumptions about ourselves, other people and the future.
Once a worry enters your mind, you expect the worst, so you react as if what you fear is guaranteed to happen and your worry starts to snowball.
“But your thoughts aren’t facts, and reminding yourself that they’re only guesses about what could happen in the future can help you break the worry cycle,” says Dr. Hazlett-Stevens. “Essentially, worry is the thinking component of anxiety. It’s what you’re saying to yourself when you’re anticipating a future outcome to be problematic.”
New ways of thinking
You can’t break a habit like worry by telling yourself not to do it anymore. You have to find something new and different to do instead.
Dr. Hazlett-Stevens suggests writing in a journal and using the following five steps to track and work through your worries. When you catch yourself worrying:
1. Get specific. Identify exactly what you’re saying to yourself about what might happen. Get as detailed and concrete as you can.
2. Generate alternatives. Brain-storm other outcomes and interpretations of the situation at hand. “Generating many different possibilities keeps you from getting stuck on the worst possible outcome, which is a worrier’s first response,” says she says.
3. Look at the evidence. Examine the likelihood of each possibility coming to pass. Look at the evidence behind each one, and then challenge yourself to look for all the evidence you can find against the worst outcome occurring.
4. Suppose the worst did happen. Follow your worry all the way through and face it down. As a corollary, remember all the times in the past when you handled a difficult problem just fine.
5. Explore new perspectives. After you’ve examined this worry objectively, expect to find a new perspective that’s more balanced and reality-based.
Once you can view the situation with fewer assumptions, you should be less convinced that your original pessimistic prediction is accurate or likely to unfold.
You may be able to work through your worries on your own and find a new way of looking at uncertainties in your life.
But you may need the help of a mental health professional if you find the emotional intensity of your worry is often out of proportion with the issue at hand, if you spend a lot of time feeling anxious or if you have difficulty sleeping.
“Self-help books or advice aren’t a substitute for good counseling,” says Dr. Hazlett-Stevens. “So, if you suspect your problems are severe or you just need some help, ask your doctor to recommend a mental health professional.”