Worrying and rumination are common features of depression and anxiety disorders. When you worry, you react as though a problem were already happening and will keep happening indefinitely. However, the things we worry about often never happen. If you’re prone to worry, this makes no difference because you feel like you have to be ready. This way of thinking can make you anxious, tense, and even sick. Overcoming anxiety and depression often requires conquering worry and keeping things in proper perspective. This is important for improving your quality of life and your ability to function. If you’re recovering from addiction, stopping your worrying might even make the difference between a sustained recovery and a relapse. Getting worry under control isn’t easy, but here are some strategies that may help.
Label worried thinking.
When you’re in the middle of worrying about something, you typically don’t think of it as worrying. You feel like you are dealing with a real emergency. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean you aren’t already dealing with it. If a certain line of thinking is causing anxiety, the first step is to recognize it for what it is: worry. Just acknowledging that you’re worrying gives you a little breathing room and allows you to deploy strategies for dealing with it.
Talk it out.
Keeping worries to yourself only amplifies them. They bounce around in your head, getting worse and worse. We are often under the mistaken impression that we are thinking, but worry is typically just rehearsing our fears. To break out of this pattern, talk about your worries with someone you trust. Having to explain your worries to someone not inside your head forces you explain things clearly, which often exposes your errors in thinking. Even if you don’t spot these errors yourself, your friend might. You might even ask your friend to talk you down and explain why your worries are irrational. If you don’t have a friend who can do this reliably, consider talking to a therapist. Just expressing your worries out loud can take some of their power away.
Write it out.
Writing out your worries is another good strategy for taking their sting away. Whether you don’t have someone to talk to or you just prefer to express yourself in writing, writing down your worries can have many of the same benefits of talking them out. You have to explain them coherently, which often shrinks them down and exposes errors in thinking. Writing down your worries also helps for another reason. Part of the reason we worry is that we’re afraid we’re going to forget something. Writing down whatever you’re worried about ensures you won’t forget and gives your brain permission to quit thinking about it.
One quick way to stop worrying is to get some exercise. Exercise works well for several reasons. First, it’s a distraction. Instead of sitting around thinking about whatever is worrying you, you change your environment and you have to focus on what you’re doing. Exercise also increases levels of GABA and serotonin, which calm you down and reduce anxiety. Perhaps most importantly, exercise stimulates your prefrontal cortex, which improves planning, self-control, and emotional regulation. If you’re eaten up with worry and go for a run, you will feel completely different in less than 20 minutes.
Occasionally, we worry about things we can actually do something about. If you’re worried about something, decide whether it falls into that category. If not, do something else to forget about it. If there is something you can do, consider doing it right away, even if it’s something small. For example, if you’re worried you might get laid off from work, there might not be anything you can do about it, but you can update your resume or touch base with friends who might be able to put you onto another job. It doesn’t solve the problem you’re worried about, but it is meaningful action that can soften the blow, should you actually get laid off. Doing something, even if it’s not much, is also a way to fight back against feelings of helplessness that can turn anxiety into depression.
Practicing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is a great way to manage worry. It helps alleviate worry at several stages of the worry cycle. First, it allows you to become aware when you’re caught up in worry so that you can say, “Oh, I’m worrying,” and take some action to stop it. Second, mindfulness allows you to accept worry. Usually, when you try to stifle worry, it only gets worse. Accepting it is the first step in dealing with it constructively. Think about where you feel it in your body when you worry. Allow the worry to be there without either being caught up in it or trying to force it out. Often, there is something important there that our brains or bodies are trying to tell us, so it’s important to acknowledge it.
Finally, when we worry, we typically engage parts of the brain called the default mode network or DMN. Among other things, the DMN is responsible for forming a coherent sense of self. It sort of coordinates all the stories we tell about ourselves in order to maintain a sense of identity. It’s also involved with daydreaming, rumination, and worry. However, the DMN becomes much less active when we pay attention to things outside of our own heads. Essentially, your attention can’t go inward and outward at the same time. So if you’re worried about something, you can stop worrying by paying attention to your environment–the sounds, the smells, what people are saying, and so on. This can be tricky because your brain will usually be drawn to the perceived threat, i.e., the worry. That’s why mindfulness meditation is helpful. It’s basically a daily practice of returning your attention to an object of focus rather than worries or ruminations.
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