Most of us occasionally worry about one thing or another, some people much more than that. Sometimes we worry about things that are happening in our lives; often we worry about what could potentially happen. Worry is a disturbing and destructive state of mind when you experience anxiety over things that are often beyond your control.
While worry may have some value for defining and analyzing problems, habitual worry is an emotional state that can have physical impacts, such as: impaired brain function and health, fatigue, skin conditions, muscle soreness, circulatory and respiratory problems, gastrointestinal dysfunction, and a compromised immune system.
But worry isn’t a physical condition—it’s all in your head.
Churning up anxiety over something that you can’t do anything about may be the single most energy-draining activity in which you can engage. Chronic worriers are unhappy people and often unhealthy as well. “Don’t worry, be happy” is simplistic and disrespectful. But the sentiment is in the right place: when you worry about something to the point that it affects your daily life and relationships or disrupts your sleep, it would be extremely helpful if you could easily allay the anxiety and rationally deal with whatever situation is causing the distress.
Because you have control over your thoughts, you can train yourself to manage worry to keep it from becoming debilitating—and potentially to consistently hold it at bay.
Here are three ways to train your brain to stop worrying:
1. Write it down
We’re often worried about something in the future that may or may not actually happen. Those concerns are hard to rein in because thoughts often spiral and you start thinking of all the possibilities, regardless of how realistic or probable they are. Research into the causes and outcomes of worry has found that there’s an inverse relationship between the degree of worry and how real the subject of worry is:
“The more participants worried about a given topic the less concrete was the content of their elaboration. The results challenge the view that worry may promote better problem analyses. Instead they conform to the view that worry is a cognitive avoidance response.” (1)
Journaling your troubling thoughts makes them more concrete. Whether written by hand or electronically typed, writing the actual words makes them real and you can deal with them in a more direct way. You give shape and validation to vague ethereal thoughts. You can then step back and look at the words to consider your troubles more objectively. Expressive writing about a stressful subject has been demonstrated to be a very effective moderator of anxiety. (2) Getting it out of your head and onto paper can give your mind some peace!
Take a vacation from the din of your thoughts on a regular basis. Stress levels in the Western world are on the rise, with significant and noticeably negative effects. Mindfulness meditation calms the mind and body. A Dutch study of the effects of meditation to alleviate stress found:
“MM [mindful meditation], HRV-BF [heart rate variability biofeedback], and PE [physical exercise] are all effective self-help methods to improve attention control, executive functioning, mindful awareness, self-compassion, and worrying…” (3)
In fact, mindful meditation has been found effective in:
- improving blood sugar levels
- reducing the effects of stress of all kinds
- preventing memory loss
- promoting cognitive function
- improving immune system function
- promoting calmness and re-balancing emotions
- decreasing the feeling of loneliness
- managing pain
- and more!
It doesn’t take a lot of time each day to practice mindfulness; as much time as you have is enough, even if it’s only a minute. Go to a quiet room, sit or lie comfortably, breathe deeply and regularly, and let your thoughts come and go without lingering on any one. Treat your worrisome thoughts as transient, passing through your consciousness like a warm breeze. Be present in the moment and ground yourself from being carried away by the busy-ness of your life and the worry you experience. You will feel refreshed and calmer, your concerns not as critical and imposing. For some people, meditation is even more effective at reducing anxiety than physical exercise. (4)
Vigorous physical activity is good for you in every way, including helping you deal with stress. When you exercise, hormones are released in your body that (among other things) make you feel good, counteracting and balancing stress hormones. (5) In a psychological context, numerous studies have found that exercise:
- improves self-esteem
- provides a sense of well-being
- protects from mental illness (6)
- reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms (7)
You may compare a state of worry with anticipation of an attack of some sort: adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones are released to prepare for fight or flight. Because the attack isn’t physical (at least in the moment of worry), you instead freeze—there’s really nothing else you can do without a tangible antagonist. This is a case in which you are your own worst enemy. These stress hormones are on low boil for as long as you worry and there is never a resolution for a chronic worrier.
When you exercise, you focus your efforts to the physical realm, transferring a battle in the mind to a battle of the body. You provide yourself with an outlet for all that’s been bottled up and simmering. In addition, you can’t dwell on any one thought outside of the attention you are forced to pay to your body while it’s in motion. When your exertion has ended, hormones regain homeostasis and all your body’s systems are rejuvenated.
When you find yourself worrying, take a walk outside as soon as you can get out and as far away from cars and bustle as you can. Walk briskly and look around you, taking in whatever your senses feed you while breathing regularly. Even a short walk can quickly alleviate immediate symptoms of worry and help you reset.
Try to remember that worrying about what has already happened won’t change history; worrying about the present doesn’t positively affect how events will resolve; and worrying about the future (and what might happen) is a complete waste of time and energy. Be as kind and helpful to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Train your brain to stop worrying.