Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

How to Stop Worrying

Worrying is a lasting preoccupation with past or future bad events. It is a type of thinking that makes you feel as if you were reliving a past event or living out a future one, and you cannot stop those thoughts from occurring. Such thoughts are often characterized by the phrases “If only…” and “What if…”

Worry bothers almost everyone periodically. Whenever you are facing problems, your mind will be addressing them and trying to figure out what to do. The mind is a remarkable instrument, able to call back past memories and to picture possible future events. With these abilities, it can take advantage of everything you have learned to help you to adapt to the world.

But at times, worry can create emotional stress.

  • You can find yourself thinking about past events that were depressing or anxiety-provoking at the time they happened.
  • You can think about all kinds of future events that might happen and which would make you feel badly if they did.

At times, for no obvious reason, you just can’t stop thinking about such things. Each time you do think about them, you body reacts just as if the event were actually happening or about to happen.

For example, recall the last time someone criticized you or said something hurtful, or think about a friend acting in an unkind way towards you in the future. The more you think about this happening, the worse you feel. The amazing thing about thinking of such events is that they are not actually happening right now. They exist only in your mind. Yet how you feel right now is being influenced by something that no longer exists or does not yet exist.

Most of the time, if such thoughts come to mind, you can recognize that those events are not happening and can readily dismiss them. Other times, however, you find that you cannot ignore such thoughts; they continue to return to your awareness, and you just cannot stop them.

“If Only” Thoughts

“If only…” refers to thoughts about an unhappy event that you wish hadn’t happened. The event has left you with an unresolved emotional feeling, and under these circumstances your mind continues to try to resolve it, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Unfortunately, in many cases, because the event has already happened, nothing can be done. You cannot go back into the past and miraculously have the event turn out differently. But when your mind recalls the event, its natural tendency is to keep trying to solve the problem it represented.

“What If” Thoughts

“What if…” refers to thoughts about the future. In the case of worry, these thoughts are about any number of possible disagreeable things that could happen.

  • “What if I have an automobile accident?”
  • “What if I run out of money and can’t pay my bills?”
  • “What if my spouse should someday no longer love me?”
  • “What if I make a mistake and everyone thinks I’m a fool because of it?”

Each of these is a possible future event. If you think about it enough, you can make yourself depressed or anxious, no matter how unlikely it is that such an event will actually happen.

Facts About Anxiety And Worry

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting over 19 million people.
  • People with an anxiety disorder are three-to-five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than non-sufferers.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to be afflicted with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
  • Anxiety is the most common symptom of patients seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist.


When Is Worry Too Much?

Most people will worry if an unpleasant event has just happened and it involved something or someone very important to them. Suddenly losing your money, having a hurtful argument with someone close to you, having an automobile accident, or making a mistake, will naturally result in your mind trying to cope with the feelings that those events aroused.

Similarly, you will probably worry if a highly probable unwanted event is coming your way. Your mind may try to work out how to avoid a bad outcome if:

  • You have to drive in very bad weather
  • A sudden large expense occurs
  • There is real evidence that your spouse is no longer as loving as he/she used to be
  • You are facing an important challenge at work or in your social life where poor performance on your part is a real possibility

If worrying is a natural response of the mind to disagreeable events that have happened or have some likelihood of happening, when is worry undesirable? How much worry is too much?

There is no absolute answer to this question, but there are some good general guidelines. While thinking about a past bad event might be natural shortly after it occurs, constantly thinking about it long afterwards is not adaptive for you. If there is nothing that can be done about the past, it is time to let go of it and get on with your life.

When faced with upcoming problems, anticipating the future and planning ways to avoid bad events and create good events are adaptive behavior (everyday living skills that are learned), but constant thinking about possibilities is not useful.

Worry is a problem if:

  • Your thinking is causing intense emotional distress and has been interfering with your daily functioning for some time
  • In general, it is not quickly or clearly providing solutions.

In the case of “What if…?” worries, there is another useful guideline: Worry is natural only to the extent that the feared future event is really likely to happen.

  • If a spot occurs on your skin, it is wise to have a physician take a look at it. “What if it is cancer?” may be an adaptive thought that leads to the adaptive response of seeing a physician.
  • To worry about it very much in the meanwhile, after making an appointment with the physician, would be nonproductive, because the likelihood of actual cancer is low.
  • To worry about it after the physician says that it is not cancer is even less adaptive, because the likelihood of cancer is then extremely low.

So in general, worry is maladaptive if the things you worry about are not very likely to happen.

Even for future bad events that are quite likely to happen, worry may not be useful and will simply cause additional disturbance. This is the case when you have done all the problem solving you can do before the event and there is nothing more to do about it.

Of course it is natural for the mind to periodically be reminded about the upcoming event until it is over. But if you’ve done all you can reasonably do in preparation for it, to continue to allow yourself to constantly think about it merely causes more distress and interference with the rest of your life. So, although the worrying here may be natural, it is not helpful, and applying methods to reduce it would be useful.

Need To Know:

Worrying Is A Habit

It is important to remember that worrying is a habit. A habit is something that is repeated involuntarily.

Habits are developed because you have practiced doing them so often that you just start doing them without being aware of it. Worrying can become a mental habit. If worrying is a common problem for someone, it is partly because that person has done it a lot in the past. This fact will have some implications for how to reduce the habit of worrying.


How To Reduce Worrying

Fortunately, there are strategies that you can learn and practice that can be useful for reducing worry. But because worrying is a habit that has been well practiced, you should realize that it will take frequent practice of other courses of action, ones that are incompatible with worry, to reduce the habit of worrying.

The more the methods are practiced, the stronger the new habit becomes and the weaker the old habit of worry becomes. This will take some effort in the beginning.

Additionally, it is important to realize that what works for one person may not work for another. Because each person is unique, the way in which he or she worries, and the best ways for that person to learn to reduce his or her worrying, may vary.

The most effective way to reduce worry is to choose a method and practice it. If after a few weeks of conscientious practice you do not notice a decline in your worrying, it is sensible to shift to a different method and to practice that for a while.

The important point is to give a method a good try before abandoning it, and to realize that while some methods work well for some types of worrying, others may be better for other types of worrying. You can try combining methods until you find which combination works best for you.

Methods include:

  • Observe your worrying and catch it early
  • Count your worrying
  • Limit worrying with the worry period
  • Postpone worries to the worry period
  • Attend to the immediate environment
  • Use worry period for problem solving
  • Try cognitive restructuring
  • Relaxation methods for bodily disturbance
  • Track the outcome of your worries
  • Seeking professional help

Observe Your Worrying And Catch It Early

Most of us, when we worry, are not even aware that it has started. That is the nature of habits. That’s why learning to become aware of your worrying is fundamental to any method of worry reduction. Begin by observing your worrying: Become more aware of it; observe it with the goal in mind of catching the worry as soon as it begins.

In applying any of these worry-reduction methods, the earlier it is applied, in other words the earlier you can catch the worry, the more effective in the long run the method will be. This is because the longer an episode of worrying lasts, the more the habit is strengthened and the more you are strengthening the bonds between the specific worrisome thoughts in particular. In other words, you are reinforcing the habit. So, the earlier the worrying is caught, the less that habit is strengthened.

By becoming increasingly conscious of the habit of worrying, it is possible to a greater and greater degree to switch it off before it becomes obsessional. It is a good sign when you are consciously catching the worrying early. You are approaching the position of being able to do something about it more effectively.

Count Your Worrying

In learning to observe your worrying, it is useful to keep track of how often it occurs during the day.

  • Making marks on a notepad (that you carry with you) or using a wristwatch golf-counter would allow you to record this information.
  • At the end of each day write down the total and watch this trend over a number of days.

This procedure is helpful as a reminder to you to observe and catch worrying. It also provides information on how much time you spend worrying. Later, as you begin practicing worry-reduction methods and continue to track the daily frequency of worrying, you’ll be able to see what impact your methods are having.

Limit Worrying With The Worry Period

Worrying can take place any time and in any place, and it can occur without you even being aware of it. Because of this, worrying can become associated with many times and many places.

When some action like worrying is frequently associated with a particular place, returning to that place will tend to elicit the action in the future. That is, the place comes to remind you of the worrying, so you start worrying again. In this way, worrying comes to be triggered at many times and places, until it goes on all day.

One useful strategy, then, is to practice limiting the occurrence of worry to, ideally, one place and one time of day. To do this, set up a “30-minute worry period.”

  • Choose a particular time and place for worrying. That time and place should always be the same each day. Make the place unique, a place where you will only worry and where you will not do anything else. Choosing the kitchen table, or bed, or your favorite living room chair would not be a sensible idea, because you go to those places often. A chair placed in a corner of a room only during the worry period would be a better idea. It creates a unique environment that will only be associated with worry.
  • Choose a time that is convenient each day so that you are rarely busy with something else that might prevent you from using your worry period. Avoid choosing a time too close to bedtime; it is not sensible to associate worry with going to sleep!

There are several strategies discussed below for how you can use the worry period, and some traditional methods to be used in conjunction with the worry period to make it effective.

Postpone Worries To The Worry Period

You have been observing your worries and have begun to practice catching them early. The next step is to postpone those worries to your worry period as soon as you become aware of them.

When you catch the beginning of a worry, remind yourself that:

  • You will have time later on to think about that worry. There is no need to worry about it now. In fact, your worrying later during the worry period will likely lead to better solutions to the problem than doing it now, when you don’t have the time.
  • There are other things going on in your life that either require your attention or would be more pleasant to attend to than making yourself upset with worrying.

So, postpone the worry. Write down the topic in case you are worried that you might forget it before you get to your worry period.

Attend To The Immediate Environment

The next method to use in combination with postponement is to focus your attention on the immediate environment or the task at hand. Remember, the events that you think about during worry don’t exist right now. So focus your attention back to what does immediately exist.

As you practice this, become increasingly aware of the difference between attending to what exists “out there” and attending to what doesn’t actually exist except in your thoughts and images. Practice spending more and more time attending to what does exist.

Postponing a worry when it has been caught early and focusing attention on the immediate environment can help to reduce the frequency and duration of worry episodes. Each time these are practiced, the worry habit lessens in strength and alternative habits are strengthened.

However, you should realize that old habits are hard to break. After postponing and focusing, the worry will try to intrude, often almost immediately. Just repeatedly follow the same procedure each time you catch it intruding. Immerse yourself in your immediate environment, and don’t get discouraged if the worry continues to try to intrude.

Use Worry Period For Problem Solving

When you reach your worry period, there are several strategies that can be employed to make it particularly useful. Just the fact of the existence of such a worry period will make it possible to postpone worries during other times.

The worry period can also be used to start whittling away the strength of the worry. Use the worry period to list the worries you have and distinguish between those worries about which you can do something and those you cannot.

For those worries about which you can do something, use the worry period for problem solving and decision making.

  • What steps can you take to reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening?
  • Is there information you can find that can give you a better estimate of the chances of such an event happening or information that can help you come up with a solution?

Talk to someone about your concerns and get their perspective on the reasonableness of the worry or possible solutions. Decide on some actions to take over the next few days that can reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening.

Try Cognitive Restructuring

You can also use the worry period to do some cognitive restructuring. This involves several steps:

  1. Identify the specific thoughts that you have when you worry. What is it, exactly, that you are saying to yourself when you are worrying? Write these thoughts down. Your observation of those worries during the day should provide you with the material for this.
  2. Now take each thought and logically analyze it. That is, what is the evidence for that thought? What is the probability of it happening? Has the event happened before? Is it reasonable or logical to predict that the event will happen, given the evidence?
  3. Even if the event happens, will you be able to handle it? What actions can you take to minimize its effects? Have you handled such situations in the past without terrible consequences? A year after the event, should it happen, what difference will it make by then?
  4. As you answer such questions, find those that indicate that the likelihood of things working out all right is good and that you would have ways of coping with the event if it happens. Create new thoughts from these and write them down next to the relevant worrisome thoughts you previously wrote down.

Use these new, more adaptive and reasonable thoughts whenever you catch one of the worrisome thoughts during the day. At first, the new thoughts may not ring true compared to the old worrisome thoughts. Just remind yourself that they are true, based on your logical evidence-based analysis. They will, with repeated practice, start feeling more true as you frequently use them to replace the worrisome thoughts and as you catch them earlier and earlier.

For some worries, it is useful during your worry period to ask, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Sometimes it turns out not to be so terrible, that you would survive it, that you would be able to handle it and then move on with your life. The future is sometimes scary because it is unknown. By looking at known and likely possible futures, the future becomes less scary.

So the point of the worry period is to:

  • Provide a way of postponing worrisome thinking from other times
  • Do what problem solving you can
  • Create ways of talking to yourself or seeing things that are more adaptive and reasonable
  • Use these newly created thoughts whenever you catch yourself worrying

Relaxation Methods For Bodily Disturbance

The worry period steps are designed to help reduce worrisome thinking during the day. But worry can also create uncomfortable bodily sensations as well, such as muscle tension, stomach disturbance, and a pounding heart.

Imagining awful things can affect our bodies just as if they were actually happening. These sensations may be good clues to help you catch your worrisome thoughts earlier. Whenever you catch yourself worrying or feeling such sensations, you can replace these with a relaxation response to calm your body and make it easier to think more reasonably and clearly and to focus your attention better on your immediate environment.

How To Information:

There are many types of relaxation methods, and you may find that one is better for you than another with some experimentation.

  1. Practice a relaxing image. Picture a scene that creates a sense of calm and peacefulness, for example lying on a warm beach, sitting next to a brook in a beautiful valley, or reclining in your favorite chair at home. Let go of all other thoughts and immerse yourself in this picture as if you were actually there.
  2. Focus your attention on your breathing, every time you inhale and exhale. Say the word, “relax” or “calm” or any other word that is significant to you, upon each exhalation.
  3. Deliberately tense up different groups of muscles for about five seconds, then release that tension all at once and concentrate for a minute on the feelings of relaxation that enter those muscles once they are released.
  4. Breathe with your stomach, rather than you chest, and with practice learn to breathe at a rate of around eight to ten cycles per minute.

With each of these techniques, you will notice thoughts intruding. Just let those thoughts pass through your mind and gently focus your attention back to the relaxation process. With practice, your ability to let go of thinking is likely to increase, making it easier to let go of worrisome thoughts during the day.

You can practice such methods for ten to 15 minutes twice a day, just to build up your ability to elicit a relaxation response briefly whenever you catch yourself beginning to worry or notice bodily tension or upset.

Track The Outcome Of Your Worries

There is one other useful piece of information that you can gather. During your worry period each day:

  • Write down every event that you’re worrying about and list next to it the possible outcomes, good and bad, that might happen.
  • Keep that list until the event actually happens and see which outcome occurred.
  • Do this for every outcome that comes along and keep track of how often things actually turned out good, bad, or indifferent and whether you handled the outcome well, or not.

Over time, you will be able to collect your own evidence about your worries and your ability to cope with events that you worried about.

It is very likely that you will find that few things really turn out badly or that, even when they do, you are capable of handling them quite well. Such evidence will increase your confidence in yourself and your trust that, whatever the future holds, you will be ready for it.

Seeking Professional Help

The various methods described above can help reduce normal worrying, the kinds of worrying most of us periodically find ourselves doing. It is important to realize that for some people, worries are caused by more severe conditions such as chronic anxiety or depression.

In this case, these methods may be somewhat helpful for these conditions but are unlikely to provide lasting relief. If attempts to use these methods prove unsuccessful, it may be useful to seek professional help from a mental health practitioner who can provide a more systematic and comprehensive approach to help you overcome the problem.

Frequently Asked Questions: Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

Here are some frequently asked questions related to anxiety and worry.

Q: How can I tell if I’m worrying too much?

A: Everyone worries periodically, but if you’re constantly worrying about something that happened in the past or something that is unlikely to happen in the future, you’re probably worrying too much.

Q: At what point should I seek advice from a mental health professional?

A: If you’ve put effort into various methods of reducing worry but they have proven unsuccessful, it may be time to seek professional help.

Q: I set up a “worry period” before I go to bed, but now I can’t sleep.

A: It’s best to set up a “worry period” at the same time each day, but not before bed. Try to do it earlier in the day when you’re not busy with other activities.

Q: Whenever I worry, I get a knot in my stomach. Is there anything I can do?

A: Worrying can cause unpleasant physical responses in your body, but there are numerous relaxation techniques that you can practice to help ease tension.

Putting It All Together: Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

Here is a summary of the important facts and information related to anxiety and worry.

  • Worrying is a lasting preoccupation with past or future bad events.
  • Most people worry at one time or another.
  • Worrying can take place any time and in any place, and it can occur without you even being aware of it.
  • Worrying is a habit, but like any habit, it can be broken.
  • Although there is no absolute answer as to how much worry is too much, in general, constantly worrying about events that already happened or events that are unlikely to happen is probably excessive.
  • There are strategies you can use to stop worrying, but they have to be practiced over time.

Glossary: Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

Here are definitions of medical terms related to anxiety and worry.

Adaptive behavior: Everyday living skills that are learned.

Anxiety: A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness.

Cognitive restructuring: A therapy technique in which an individual identifies negative, irrational beliefs and replaces them with truthful, rational statements.

Depression: A mood disorder characterized by a feeling of intense sadness.

Generalized anxiety disorder: A disorder characterized by excessive, unrealistic worry that lasts six months or more.

Obsessive compulsive disorder: A disorder in which individuals are plagued by persistent, recurring thoughts (obsessions) that reflect exaggerated anxiety or fears.

Panic disorder: A disorder in which someone suffers severe attacks of panic which may include symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, sweating, trembling, tingling sensations, a feeling of choking, a fear of dying, fear of losing control, and feelings of unreality.

Social anxiety disorder: A disorder characterized by extreme anxiety about being judged by others or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or ridicule

Worry: A lasting preoccupation with past or future bad events.

Additional Sources Of Information: Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

Here are some reliable sources that can provide more information about anxiety and worry.

National Institute of Mental Health

American Psychological Association 
Phone: 1-800-374-2721

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