Do you worry a lot? It’s easy to do. There are so many unknowns in life and so many ways you could potentially be harmed, rejected, or lose your resources. Sickness, job loss, betrayal, rejection, academic failure, ending up alone, aging, poverty, crime, and terrorism are some of the most common themes of worrying thoughts. Constant, ongoing worry is the cardinal symptom of a mental health condition known as generalized anxiety disorder, but some worrying is just part of being human. Our brains are wired to worry. In fact, research shows that our brains generate scenarios of possible future events in order to prepare our brains and bodies to deal with them. When our ancestors lived in the jungle, those who best predicted where the predators were lurking were more likely to live and pass on their genes to future generations. That being said, worry can kill your joy, take you out of the present, and become a self-sabotaging habit that drains your energy. But research keeps finding new, proven ways to help you worry less. Read on to find out what these are.
1. Learn acceptance-based mindfulness meditation.
While the traditional view of mindfulness meditation is that it involves sitting quietly and watching the breath, this is only one of many ways of practicing mindfulness. Watching the breath is a way of training your attention, but there is another form of mindfulness meditation that focuses on calmly accepting your ongoing inner experience, thereby taking away some of its sting. A 2017 study compared the effects of attention-based versus acceptance-based mindfulness to a control condition (progressive muscle relaxation) in reducing short-term worry. The attention-based meditation group focused on watching the breath and bringing their attention back to the breath when their minds wandered. By contrast, the acceptance-based meditation group focused on just noticing and allowing, perhaps labeling, whatever inner experiences naturally emerged for them, including thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations.
The specific instructions for the acceptance-based mindfulness intervention stated:
“Direct your attention inwardly . . . notice thoughts, emotions, physical sensations . . . any other kinds of experiences as they show up in the field of your awareness . . . sitting and noticing what’s here, right now, for you…. Each time you become aware of a private experience, such as a thought, or a feeling . . . turning your attention towards it, acknowledging it, maybe labeling it . . . and as best you can, letting things be as they are . . . making space for your experiences.”
Results showed that the acceptance-based meditation worked best for reducing acute worry. The breathing meditation was more effective than the control condition, but less effective than the acceptance-based meditation.
It seems that just allowing worried thoughts to be there — observing them calmly, rather than reacting to them — can actually reduce their frequency.
2. Practice accepting uncertainty.
If you worry a lot, you probably want certainty in your life. It may be hard for you to live with even a slight possibility that harmful things could happen. Worrying a lot may give you the illusion of control over future negative events, even if it doesn’t actually help. Therefore, you may at some level believe that not worrying makes you more vulnerable to harm and danger. The problem is that this belief is false. Worrying only helps you avoid future danger to the extent that it helps you come up with effective coping strategies. Unfortunately, most worry is just negative and repetitive thinking that doesn’t generate any solutions and actually makes you feel worse about the situation. It makes you think of new and more severe negative events. Not only will your partner break up with you, but you’ll likely never find anybody else, never have kids, and end up alone.
Wanting certainty is a natural human need, but it’s one that isn’t possible to fulfill. Life is inherently uncertain, changing and unpredictable. Many terrible things can happen, but the likelihood of most is small, and even if they do happen, you may be able to cope and adapt, find support, and keep going. A second strategy to decrease worry is to make an existential choice that you can learn to accept some level of uncertainty. Just because you’re not 100 percent safe doesn’t mean anything bad will actually happen. And worrying doesn’t help anyway. If you catch yourself wanting certainty, practice trying to let go of that need. Instead bring your attention to the present moment, and remind yourself you are safe in this moment, and nothing bad is happening to you right now.
3. Let go of perfectionism.
Research reviews suggest that people who worry a lot may be more likely to be perfectionistic. They may be overly preoccupied with making mistakes, take too much responsibility for negative outcomes, or feel that they always have to make perfect decisions and stop negative things from happening. These beliefs may lead you to cling to the worry more and perseverate with it. You may even feel guilty if you stop worrying, in case you failed to anticipate and protect yourself or your loved ones from a future bad event. If you’re perfectionistic, you may feel that you need to explore every negative possibility in a situation and find a solution for it before you can move on with your life. The problem is that thinking about negative possibilities makes you more anxious, which in turn makes you come up with more negative possibilities, creating a downward spiral of mood and thinking.
Therefore, a third strategy for reducing worry is to become aware of these perfectionistic and over-responsible beliefs, evaluate their impact on your life, and try to overcome your fear of letting them go. Perfectionistic people want to control everything, so part of letting go of perfectionism is accepting and understanding how much of life’s outcomes are not in your control. Practice allowing yourself to stop worrying when you don’t feel like worrying anymore, or when you seem to be stuck in a mental loop. Allow yourself to make mistakes and imperfect decisions. Keep telling yourself that you are only human and don’t have to get everything right.
4. Externalize the worry.
When worries are abstract, toxic thoughts lurking in your head, it’s difficult to deal with them. Instead, try to externalize them, perhaps thinking of them as a character, like “Worried Wendy.” Imagine her scurrying around with a worried face, constantly tapping you on the shoulder to point out a new negative possibility. Once you can see her, you can develop a relationship with her. Perhaps you want to tell her she’s not the boss of you, and you don’t have to listen to her. Or you could try a more compassionate approach, by asking her what she needs from you. You could reassure her that you’ve got the situation in hand or negotiate with her. Perhaps she can agree to back off a bit, if you tell her you will try to start working on projects sooner and not freak her out by waiting until the last minute. You could try to understand what she’s about. Perhaps she’s a brain habit you developed after experiencing some danger, neglect, or overprotection as a child.
Worrying too much can suck the joy out of life, make you more anxious, and take you away from being present with your partner, family, or friends. If you repeatedly practice these research- and practice-based techniques, you can help your brain build the skills to keep worry in check and to live your life with more confidence and less anxiety.