Stop Worrying: 10 Ways to Put an End to Worry
Do you get stuck in your worries? Check out these science-based strategies to stop worrying and create a worry-free life.
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What is worry?
Worry refers to thoughts, emotions, and images of a negative future. People may worry about real or imagined future events. Often, we mistakenly believe that worry is useful in helping prevent undesired future events—to prepare or think through how we'll respond—but excessive worry only propagates future worry and is not really a useful coping strategy. So most of us worries just want to stop worrying.
How much worrying is too much?
Worries, doubts, and anxieties are completely normal. In fact, 38% of people worry about something everyday. It’s actually adaptive (beneficial) to worry about things that could go wrong. It we just lived life will-nilly, we'd be more likely to make mistakes that could hurt us, threaten our health, and derail out future.
But “normal” worry can become problematic when it’s enduring and difficult to control. For example, if you worry about all the bad things that could happen, often imagining worst-case scenarios, and you have anxious thoughts that interfere with your ability to do regular stuff, like sleep, digest, enjoy friends, etc, then worrying has become a problem for you.
Why excessive worry hurts our well-being
Excessive worrying can hurt your emotional and physical health. It can cause unpleasant emotions and contribute to all sorts of anxiety symptoms like insomnia, headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension, and poor concentration. Excessive worrying can also put stress on your relationships, hurt your self-confidence, and even stall your career.
Chronic worrying is usually a symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a non-specific anxiety disorder that involves a general feeling of unease about most aspects of your life. Luckily, if you worry more than you'd like to there are lots of things you can do to stop worrying so much.
Why is it hard to stop worrying?
For us chronic worriers, the idea that we could just stop worrying seems unlikely. And it's clear why. Worry is a negative thought pattern, and any thought pattern that we use over and over again gets hard-wired in our brains—once it's hard-wired it's harder to stop.
Stopping worrying also involves addressing our beliefs, values, and emotions—all things that keep the worry going long after it is useful. So stopping worrying can require overhauling the way we think and behave.
Here's some strategies that can help you stop worrying:
1. Ask yourself, where does your worry come from?
Psychologists (like myself) tend to focus on psychological solutions to worry. Change your thoughts, stop the worry cycle, etc... These are helpful anti-worry strategies, but if you're caught up in a bad situation, finding the source of your worry and taking action to change the situation can sometimes be the more effective strategy.
One way you can tell whether the worry is more situational versus more about the way you think is by asking yourself: "is the worry general or specific?" If you only tend to worry about one specific area of your life, like work or a relationship, but you don't worry about everything else (like health, money, etc...), your worry might be better addressed by taking some sort of constructive action to change your situation. Ultimately, your thoughts are trying to protect you. So first ask yourself if there is something you can change in your life to stop the worries altogether.
Or, if you're like me, and you tend to worry about most things, then working directly with your thoughts is likely to be more effective. In this case, the worry problem is likely arising from worry patterns rather than specific events.
2. Explore your worry triggers
Sometimes finding the source of your worry is easy—it's the job, the romantic partner, the kids, or financial issues. Or, the origins of your worry may be more complicated, hidden, and, therefore, difficult to stop. Either way, before working on stopping worry, it can be useful to investigate what’s causing your worry until you get a clearer picture of what's driving worry for you.
Explore worry at work. Perhaps a workgroup you are part of is amping up stress. Perhaps you could ask to be moved to a different group or perhaps you can negotiate more work-from-home flex-time.
Explore worry at home. Perhaps you have a stressful in-law, sibling, partner, or screaming children. Consider assertively communicating your needs to these folks to help cut the worry that arises from these stressful relationships.
Once you've done what you can to change the worrisome situations (which in many cases may not be much), its time to start working on your worrying thoughts.
Here's some quick strategies to stop worrying:
3. Calm the worry in your body
One way to stop worrying is a by engaging in meditation. By sitting quietly and directing thoughts elsewhere, you can begin to soothe the body and halt worry cycles. Over time, we can train the mind to notice our thoughts and calm the body without getting stuck in our worries.
To practice meditation all you need is a comfy spot and, to make it even easier, a meditation video to guide your thoughts and keep them from getting caught up in your worries.
Here are a couple good anti-worry videos:
This one is just calming music (I'll often listen to it while working on a stressful project to calm my anxiety).
This one walks you through an anti-worry thought exercise:
4. Identify your worry patterns
Worry comes from negative thinking about the future, and it can make the future seem more threatening than it really is. Here are some of the negative thinking patterns that can lead to worry. See which ones resonate with you. These are the ones you need to work on to reduce your worry.
Rumination. Rumination is when we think about something distressing over and over again. We think about what we could have done differently or how it could have turned out differently.
Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when we expect the worst possible outcome for every situation.
Minimization. Minimizing is when we downplay positive attributes, experiences, or strengths.
Suppression. Suppression involves trying not to show or express negative emotions. For example, we may be upset with our boss, but will try not to show our emotions on the face or in words.
Experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance involves trying not to feel negative emotions. For example, we may try to push away negative emotions or engage in drug/alcohol use so as not to feel negative emotions.
All-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking is when we view a situation as all good or all bad.
Distraction. Distraction is when we avoid experiencing our emotions by doing something else. Distraction is not always bad, but it is usually ineffective when we use it to avoid emotions. For example, a woman may get in a fight with her husband, but instead of talking to him to resolve the emotions she distracts herself by going shopping. This approach leaves the negative emotions unresolved.
Overgeneralization. Overgeneralization is when we believe negative experiences mean we will always have this negative experience. For example, if we had a bad relationship, we may suspect that all relationships we have in the future will also be bad.
Negative attention. Negative attention is when we focus on the things that went wrong rather than the things that went right.
External attribution for the good things. External attribution is the belief that the good things that happen to us are controlled by forces and circumstances outside of ourselves. "We're just lucky".
Internal attribution for the bad things. Internal attribution is the belief that the bad things that happen to us are controlled by us. It's our fault that bad things happen.
Mind reading. Mind reading is when we think we know what others are thinking about us, but we haven't actually asked them.
Self-criticism. Self-criticism is when we beat ourselves us for even the smallest mistakes. For example, “I can't believe I did that. I’m such a moron.”
5. Challenge your worry patterns
When you identify your own unique worry patterns, challenge the validity of these thoughts. For example, you could ask yourself:
To work on changing your worry patterns a bit more, check out this activity.
6. Ask yourself, is the situation controllable or not?
If you're worried about something you can fix, you might be better off fixing it than letting the worry dominate your thoughts. Procrastination is a good example. Instead of worrying about the thing you need to do, just do it and that can help the worry dissipate.
On the flip side, maybe you're worried about something you have no control over. I recall a period when my husband and I were considering a divorce and I worried intensely about it initially. At some point, though, I just realized I could only be myself and I had no control over his decisions. It actually felt good to just let go of the fears about what could happen and accept whatever was to come.
Why avoiding anxiety is a cycle:
7. Stop worry with exercise
When you're worrying intensely, your physiology is all messed up. Simply stopping the thoughts doesn't help those neurochemicals dissipate in your body any faster. That's why doing something with your body can really help with worry.
Exercise can help with anxiety because it releases endorphins and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, both of which can relieve stress and help your body calm itself. It may also be helpful to focus on how your body feels during the exercise. Try to notice your breath, your heart beating, or how your body is moving, for example.
8. Try deep breathing to calm worries
When you worry, you breathe faster and shallower, which limits oxygen and can lead to more anxiety symptoms. Pausing for deep breathing exercises can help you calm your body and mind.
9. Talk about your worries
Talking with trusted friend or family member on the phone, video-chat, or in person can help you gain more perspective on your thoughts. Keeping worries suppressed or to yourself only causes them to build up and they can become overwhelming.
Just be cautious of who to avoid when you're worrying. There may be some people who are worriers themselves or have a difficult time sympathizing. Talking to them can leave you feeling worse. So be thoughtful about who you share your worries with.
10. Set a time limit on your worry
If you're not careful, worrying can suck up a lot of your time. By setting a time limit on your worry, you allow yourself some time to worry, and then let it go. During this time, you could write down your worries. This can trick your brain, letting it know it doesn't have to think about the worries anymore and can go about life.
You can also go over past worry lists and cross out the things that are no longer bothering you or didn't turn out as bad as you thought. This can help teach your brain that these worries weren't necessary after all.
More Activities To Help You Stop Worrying
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.