“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”
– Chinese Proverb
For many of us, worry can feel like an uncontrollable force streaming through our lives. We devote a great deal of time to our worries, either fretting over them or trying desperately to avoid them. Both pursuits take a lot of energy. Because of their distracting nature, our worries often feel like they’re driving us. The truth is, we have more power than we think. We can change our relationship to our worries and learn how to stop worrying.
A University of Liverpool study of more than 30,000 people recently revealed that while trauma in a person’s life is the number one cause of stress, how people think about this trauma is just as relevant to how much stress they experience. As head researcher Peter Kinderman put it, “Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”
So, how can we change our relationship to our worries? Here are some methods to shift the way we think – our very own guide on how to stop worrying.
Why some of us can’t stop worrying
A 2016 review in Biological Psychology shed new light on why some of us are more inclined to get caught up in our worries than others. It explains that people who worry pathologically have an attention bias and are more likely to detect threats and engage in a “’what if …?’ thinking style.” They have a tendency to perceive the world as more dangerous and suffer from more negative moods. Basically, they tend to view the same circumstances in a more negative light, weighing bad outcomes over good and convincing themselves that their worries are useful.
People who worry less have an easier time focusing on positive outcomes and letting their worries go when they no longer feel they serve them. This research further suggests that if we can change our relationship to our worries and train ourselves in a new way of thinking about them, we can teach ourselves how to stop worrying so much.
How to Stop Worrying: Practices and Exercises
1. Practice mindfulness
Scientists are continually providing proof that a mindfulness practice can help alleviate worry. A recent study published in Behavior Research and Therapy showed that specific psychological exercises involving mindfulness techniques may reduce anxiety by “reducing the negative thought intrusions that characterize worry.” In her PsychologyToday blog reviewing the study, Dr. Marlynn Wei wrote:
The most effective technique for reducing the frequency of negative thoughts was a guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation. The general principle behind acceptance-based meditations is that you allow thoughts to come into your mind, observe, acknowledge, and make room for them rather than attempt to struggle with them.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to sit with our thoughts without overly connecting to them or allowing them to take over. By learning to focus our attention, often on our breathing, we can find a sense of calm. We learn to allow thoughts to pass by. For worriers, this can help us train our brains not to be so magnetic when it comes to our worries. We can allow each gust that carries whatever we’re worried about to pass without being swept up into a full-blow storm.
You can find a toolkit that includes breathing exercises and guided meditations here
2. Distract yourself
One of the issues for pathological worriers is that they don’t seem to know when their worrying is no longer useful. As Dr. Christian Jarrett, author of Personology put it, “Worriers tend to have a kind of perfectionist approach to worrying. They think they can’t stop worrying until they’ve finished, in the sense of working through every eventuality and solving every problem.”
Getting off the hamster wheel of worry may mean seeking distraction. “Thinking about the idea of stopping worrying when you’ve had enough of it, rather than when the worrying is somehow ‘finished’ or ‘complete,’ could be beneficial,” wrote Jerrett. For example, studies suggest that focused distraction is a good strategy for individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder to stop their cycle of unwanted thoughts. Give yourself permission to do something else. Take a walk. Call a friend. Watch a funny TV show. Play with your kid or your pet. Look for something positive or enjoyable to help lift your spirits and occupy your mind.
3. Set aside a worry time
Naturally, we can’t always run away from our worries. Some psychologists warn that simply trying to stop the thoughts isn’t a real solution and can lead to more stress. The idea behind how to stop worrying so much isn’t to avoid our concerns altogether, but to take a kinder approach and give ourselves permission to stop obsessing. One technique that may be helpful according to HelpGuide.org is to set aside a specific time when we’re allowed to worry. They suggest choosing an actual time of day (about a half hour) when we’re allowed to review our worried thoughts. The rest of the day, we can just set those thoughts aside and tell ourselves that we’ll make time for them later. We can write down these thoughts when they arise, but only review our list at the designated time.
By the time we do get around to our worries, we may even find that they no longer seem so intense. Or, perhaps, we can make a plan for a solution to a specific problem. After the time is up, we can let ourselves off the hook and return to living more in the moment.
4. Evict your Inner Critic
Part of changing our relationship to our worries means quieting an inner voice we all possess that perpetuates our anxiety by warning us about everything that could go wrong. Our “critical inner voice” is like an internalized coach, an enemy that evaluates, undermines, and criticizes us but that also fosters paranoid, suspicious attitudes toward the world around us. Like the flip side of a positive sense of self or “real self,” our critical inner voice or “anti-self” is created out of negative life experiences and messaging we internalized, often very early in our lives. Learning how this destructive thought process goes on to amplify our stress levels as well as the steps we can take to stand up to this “voice” can strengthen our real sense of self and help us to stop torturing ourselves with worry.
5. Avoid isolation
Our anxiety can lead us to seek isolation, but isolation can also perpetuate our anxiety. It’s important to seek social support when we feel worried. Finding someone we can talk to, so we don’t feel alone and lost in our heads can offer us real relief. We shouldn’t be ashamed to look to our friends to provide a welcome perspective or even help guide us to the support we need.
Our friends also tend to provide a welcome distraction. When we’re alone, we’re more likely to ruminate in negative thoughts and fall down one of the rabbit holes our critical inner voice is putting forth. Unless crowds are a cause for our anxiety, we can also simply go out in public, perhaps to a pretty park, a museum, or a mall. We should choose a place we enjoy, where we can be around other people. We can even set aside time to volunteer or take a class to learn a new hobby. These activities remind us that there’s a whole world waiting for us outside of our worries.
6. Write your worries down
Some people find writing to be a powerful tool in learning how to stop worrying. Writing helps declutter the mind and reduce stress. Studies have shown that writing about emotions may help relieve stress and trauma. One study even found that writing about their worries prior to an exam actually boosted students’ performance. Keeping a journal or even just taking a few minutes to write down our worries may help us create some distance from the feelings that are overpowering us. If writing offers comfort or eases anxiety, we can make it a practice to help us get through moments of stress.
7. Get the rest you need
A Binghamton University study showed that people who go to sleep later or for shorter durations tend to experience more repetitive negative thinking. Shorter sleep duration was associated with more rumination, while delayed sleep timing was associated with more obsessive–compulsive symptoms. Getting a good night’s sleep is beneficial for myriad mental and physical reasons. The fact that it can reduce the amount we worry is reason enough to make it a real priority.
8. Get outdoors
It’s no great surprise that people who live in closer proximity to green space show reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Being outdoors naturally teaches us how to stop worrying. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone in her blog “Nature as Medicine,” “One of the reasons, nature is so beneficial is that it allows us to feel more present in our own bodies. We tend to experience nature with our senses, drinking in sights, sounds and smells, feeling the earth on our feet and the breeze on our face.” This presence of mind can offer us respite from worrying. “As our mind unclutters, we tend to feel more active and alive,” wrote Firestone. “Plus, when we’re outside, we naturally tend to move more, which releases endorphins and further boosts our mood and energy level.”
Most of us know that exercise is good for our mental and physical health. Researchers have concluded that “adults who engage in regular physical activity experience fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms.” Exercise feels good and improves our mood because of its neurological effects. Movement offers a unique and natural way to boost our mood. Mindful exercises, like yoga, can further work to calm the mind and make us feel more relaxed and present. The body has a wonderful way of reminding the mind how to stop worrying. We should aim to discover a physical activity we enjoy and find a way to weave it into our lives. Whether it’s walking to work, spinning through our lunch hour, or participating in a team sport, we should take exercise seriously as a potential antidote to worrying.
Each of these strategies may be helpful in its own way, as we learn what works for us when it comes to how to stop worrying. However, if you ever feel overwhelmed by worrying or like you can’t calm down, you should seek help. There are many forms of therapy that can help people find relief when it comes to dealing with anxiety. If you are in pain or in crisis and feel you need support, there are treatments available and places you can seek help. The following is a list of online resources on anxiety:
- National Institute of Mental Health -Anxiety
- WebMD – Anxiety
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America
- Mayo Clinic – Anxiety
- Insight Journal
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN CRISIS OR IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP, CALL 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.
International readers can click here for a list of helplines and crisis centers around the world.