38% of people worry significantly every day. These chronic worriers spend most of their day occupied in their mind concerned with hypothetical worst-case scenarios they have no control over. For them the day consists of an endless stream of “What if…?”.
People are also on average becoming more worried. Studies show that the average high school student today is as worried and anxious as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s. Chronic worrying eventually leads to depression, a feature in most anxiety disorders. 93 % of chronic worriers would qualify for another psychiatric diagnosis, with anxiety, depression, and dysthymia most common.
14 effective ways to overcome excessive worrying.
If you are a chronic worrier there are steps you can take in order to overcome this habit. Below are twelve steps you can take in order to become more secure in yourself and a calmer person.
Step 1: Separate between problem-solving and worrying.
A worry regarding things you can influence is often referred to as a productive worry. A productive worry focuses on what you can do about a problem in the here-and-now. We can even make it less confusing by calling a productive worry for what it really is, namely a problem-solving thought.
Your level of discernment and common sense detect what is outside your sphere of influence so that you don’t focus on trying to control things that you can’t do anything about. By separating between a problem-solving thought and an unproductive worry, you become aware of thoughts that most of the time are useful, versus worries which steal your time and energy by focusing on hypothetical worst-case scenarios outside your control.
The mind has an innate tendency to try to predict the future in order to keep a person safe. However, what separates a worry from problem-solving, planning, or reflection, is that a worry focuses on problems or situations outside a person’s sphere of influence, while planning and reflection focuses on factors a person can actually influence.
A worry such as; “What if people don’t like me?”, focuses on trying to control other people’s perception. However, this is not something that is possible since people are going to think whatever they want to think. Therefore, whenever a person worries, he often ends up passive and apathetic since his focus is on things he can’t influence anyway.
When a person formulates a thought as a plan, reflection, or problem-solving he describes himself as an active part in the process of attaining an achievable goal. The thought; “What can I do to be a more likable person?”, focuses on factors that are under a person’s sphere of influence since he can change his own character traits and behaviors (with effort and discipline).
Step 2: Calm the body and become aware of underlying feelings.
The most effective anxiety regulation technique to use when anxiety is present in the body is the Tempo Breathing Observing technique. Simply put, in order to calm down the anxiety response you have to do three things simultaneously:
- Tempo – calm down the speed at which you at talking to yourself and focus on keeping your body parts calm and still. The way you say something, fast and abrupt, or slow and calm, determines your physical calm or agitation.
- Breathing – with your stomach, not with your chest. 6 seconds in, and 6 seconds out. In with your nose, and out with your mouth/nose.
- Observing – your body, not your mind/thoughts. Focusing your attention on your body and where you feel the anxiety, while blocking/moving away from your thoughts. Challenging the body to “give you more anxiety”, rather than resisting it.
It might seem counter- intuitive to ask for more anxiety, but it actually helps to calm down the body since what keeps anxiety going is the resistance to it. When you ask for more, you are using your strength and power to tell the anxiety to “bring it on!”. Often times, what keeps an anxiety attack going for a long time is that the body tenses up and fears the anxiety rather than understanding that anxiety doesn’t mean that a person is afraid. Anxiety means that a person has a feeling in the body he is currently unaware of. Your body can handle a great deal of anxiety. As long as you do not fear the anxiety, but interpret it correctly, namely that you understand that anxiety means that you are feeling something else, such as anger, sadness, guilt etc., then the experience of anxiety becomes very different. It is still uncomfortable, but when you no longer fear it, you are able to think more clearly while it is going on, and that reduces both the intensity and duration of it.
Worriers try to get rid of any negative feelings or anxiety immediately rather than exploring their feelings. Separate between the feeling in the body, which stems from the mammalian brain, versus the need to do something about that feeling. Allow yourself to feel through the feeling and drain out the physical energy behind the feeling.
A feeling has a limited amount of energy, and it is a faulty assumption to assume that it will last forever. A feeling can be compared to a wave, in that it has a beginning, a midpoint when the feelings are most intense, and an end when they subside in physical intensity and calm down.
Accept and validate the way you feel. There aren’t good or bad feelings. All feelings have their function and are trying to tell you something true or of value. However, chronic worriers often have a negative view of emotions. Often, they are ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed about their emotions and anxiety and try to hide their emotional activation rather than accepting it and communicating their feelings.
A worry is in psychodynamic psychology called a defense mechanism because while a person is busy in his mind worrying about hypothetical scenarios, he is not aware of feelings in his body. The worry defends you from your feelings.
In other words, when you are worried you are temporarily less anxious because the worry functions as a defense mechanism in order to temporarily reduce anxious activation.
That is why a worry can go on forever, and why a person can worry about the same thing over and over and over. A worry is not interested in finding a solution, its main function is to distract you from your feelings.
Step 3: Focus on intention and effort, and not the result.
Where you place your attention determines to a great extent your mood. Your attention is an ability you can consciously direct and control. Therefore, you can at any given moment choose if you want to focus your attention on past, present, or future events.
The most common form of worry concerns the worrier himself and his relationships. The worrier usually worries about his health, his economy, his social status, how he is perceived by others, and if he will lose face or become embarrassed in a social setting. Chronic worriers are therefore said to be self-centered and have narcissistic tendencies.
When you have a past, negative, and self-centered focus you worry about things that you should have and could have done different or avoided all together. This focus leads to self-blame which again fosters a depressive state.
A worrier with a future, negative, and self-centered focus expects catastrophe and disaster around every turn, and this focus fosters worry, anxiety, and nervousness.
Both the past and the future focus give ultimate importance to the result or the outcome of a situation. A worry regarding the future such as; “What if people don’t like me?”, focuses on the result or outcome of a social situation. However, the outcome of a situation usually depends on factors that are outside a persons sphere of influence, so focusing on things that you are not able to control maintains the habit of worrying. The ability of people to like other people and to be interested in getting to know others are outside your control. You do not control the character traits of other people.
A present focus directs attention towards factors in the here and now that you can influence by intention and effort. When you focus on formulating your intention, that is, the reason why you are doing a thing or performing an action, you simultaneously make a clear distinction between keeping your power versus giving your power away to others.
“Why am I going to that dinner party?”, and if the answer to that question is that you want to achieve something external (i.e. to be liked by others, to not disappoint others, etc.), then you have given away your power and this increases the likelihood that you will worry about future events and what the result of the dinner party is going to be (i.e. “What if they don’t like me?”).
You give away your power when your primary goal is to gain favorability in the minds of others and you act reactively and manipulatively in order to achieve that goal. Much more powerful and integrous would it be to act as your primary intention in accordance with what is true and just. If your true action then secondarily leads to favorable impressions of you in the minds of others you can then view that as a bonus.
If your intention is internal, meaning you do something that is true and just because you want to learn, create, plan, connect, love, share, entertain, experience, feel, exercise, or challenge yourself, then you have maintained your own power.
The same action can have different intentions behind it. You can tell a story at a dinner party with the intention of getting a laugh or getting others approval, but this external intention will only make you weaker. Or you could tell a story at a dinner party because you want to entertain (though not necessarily because you want to get others approval), or because you want to spread knowledge (though not necessarily because you want to impress others). When your intention is pure, true, and internal, the tendency to focus on external factors outside your control is practically non-existent, and hence your level of worrying is miniscule.
An intention that often reduces worrying in relation to social settings is to try to become more present in a social situation. You can literally state this to yourself and prime yourself with your intention before and during a social event, “My intention here is to be present.”. This intention changes your behavior to be more constructive and natural, and you will find that you to a greater extent is able to speak spontaneously (rather than plan what to say), and become more aware of your senses (rather than trying to mind-read other people).
Step 4: Accept that worrying doesn’t keep you safe.
The majority of worriers are conflicted about their chronic worrying. On the one hand they are sick and tired of their excessive worrying, but on the other hand they are unwilling to let go of their worrying habit because they secretly believe that it keeps them safe.
Believing that worrying keeps you safe is a form of magical thinking, because it ignores the causal relation between events. Many worriers have taken this to the extreme where they literally believe that thinking positive would jinx things and put them in harms way.
Often times, they have learned in childhood that if they are not constantly on guard bad things may happen. Therefore, they blame themselves when bad things happen because they didn’t pay attention, and so they worry as a means of scanning the environment for potential disasters and dangers, erroneously believing that this practice keeps them both safe from harm, and safe from feeling guilty and stupid when harm comes their way.
They believe that if they can imagine something bad that can happen, then it is their duty to worry about it in order to stay safe and avoid guilt and shame. However, worrying doesn’t make you safe or prepared, all that it does is make you afraid, anxious, and depressed. What actually makes you safe is your intelligence, your experience, your level of discernment, your awareness, and your ability to solve a problem spontaneously.
There is no need to give attention to a worry even though it entered your mind. Let go of the worry and focus your attention on the here-and-now: on your senses, your tempo, your breathing, or your feelings in the present moment.
To break the habit of worrying and the belief that worrying keeps you safe, one effective exercise is to set aside a pre-determined time-period when you give yourself permission to worry. This exercise includes writing down every worry that enters your mind throughout the day, but postponing giving them any attention until the pre-determined time-period. Often this time period is 15-30 minutes usually in the evening. This exercise trains your ability to separate between the thoughts in your mind, and the need to do something about them in the present moment. Many worriers find that when the pre-determined time arrives they no longer have the need to worry about anything.
Most worriers worry about their excessive worrying, but still they are not willing to let go of the habit, and this secret belief that worrying keeps them safe is the reason for this. As long as a person believes that worrying is beneficial to their security and survival there is no need to change the habit.
Step 5: Accept every outcome rather than trying to control events.
A worrier believes that if he is able to imagine something bad that could happen, then it is his duty to worry about it. And why does a worrier believe this? Simply because he is not willing to accept every outcome in life. A worrier wants to control life-events rather than go with the flow of life. He resists realizing that there is a valuable lesson to be learned from most situations, outcomes, and events.
A worrier believes that failure is unacceptable, but at the same time he fears failure to a tremendous extent. However, in life, failure is inevitably unavoidable. Studies on how children cope with failure shows that children can be divided into two broad categories: those that remain persistent despite failure versus those that become helpless in the face of failure. Those that remain persistent through failure view failure as information they can use in order to succeed on the next try. They are interested in exploring the failure in order to gather information and knowledge, rather than having an emotional response to the failure and using the failure as an excuse to blame themselves and enter a depressive and helpless state of mind.
Failure is merely an opportunity to learn and grow, but fear of failure leads to procrastination and avoidance. The fear of failure is formulated in the worriers mantra; “What if..?”. What if this happens, what if that happens, and on and on it goes in the mind of the worrier. In his mind the worrier sees himself failing over and over again and he dreads the consequences, because he imagines that the consequences will be terrible, and also that he won’t learn anything or grow as a person because of it.
When a person is able to accept reality the way reality actually is, rather than resist reality and wish for a fantasy world, then he calms down significantly because he no longer tries to control how life unfolds. This attitude prevents most failures because he becomes relaxed and present in most situations and therefore better able to deal with unforeseen situations and problems.
Step 6: Guard the decision-making moment.
Many worriers berate themselves for things that didn’t turn out the way they wanted. A form of worry is self-blame, where a person criticizes himself because of past decisions and the result of those decisions. “Why did I do this?” or “Why didn’t I do that?” are self-critical thoughts that a worrier can repeat constantly to himself without becoming any wiser or more knowledgeable.
Worriers do not defend their own level of discernment and their decision making moments. As mentioned, they focus more on the result or outcome of a situation than their intention and effort, and a consequence of doing so means to also ignore how they make their decisions.
Every action a person takes first undergoes a process where a decision to act is made. During this process the person uses his psychological faculties to rationally judge what options he has and what the best option is. Then he makes the decision that at that moment in time seems like a good idea. That reality then unfolds differently than predicted is often something a person do not control, but it doesn’t negate the fact that when the decision was made it seemed like a good idea.
It gives greater inner calm and self-esteem to separate between the decision making moment and the result of that decision. You are the one that can say whether the decision making process was good enough or whether you gave that process the necessary amount of time, intention, and effort.
Of course, some decisions lead to disastrous results, and some are even criminal or unethical, but you can learn from any decision without the constant self-blame and worry. For instance, getting behind the wheel and driving while intoxicated may seem like a good idea at the time. That the result of that decision was that you got arrested and now have to spend time in jail is a natural consequence of that decision. Sometimes we do stupid stuff and make stupid decisions, however going into self-blame mode and repeating how stupid you are 500 times in your head does not make you a more thoughtful or responsible person.
When the decision was made it usually seemed like a good decision at that time. Accepting this fact, also means accepting your discernment level, your psychological and cognitive faculties, and your strong and weak character traits. If you want to be a better person you can start by dedicating yourself to become aware of your intentions in every present moment, but when past decisions were made you were who you were.
Step 7: Accept every human character trait.
Many worriers expect perfection and then some from themselves. Often times worrying and anxiety/nervousness goes hand in hand. “What if people see that I am nervous?”, is a common worry because worriers don’t want to be perceived as insecure, afraid, emotional, not in control, or weak.
What then happens is that worriers worry about their worry because they are unwilling to accept that they sometimes manifest certain character traits that are viewed unfavorably by many. For instance, many worriers and people struggling with anxiety don’t want to be perceived as insecure, so they worry a lot about displaying any behaviors that may indicate that they are insecure.
Much better would it be if they could accept that “insecure” is a human character trait that naturally occurs in normal human beings from time to time, because every time that a person resists against a natural human character trait and don’t want to own up to the fact that sometimes that trait might be present in himself he invites nervousness and paranoia.
There are many character traits that we don’t want to be associated with, yet which may be present from time to time. Most of us wouldn’t want to be perceived as greedy, but from time to time we may display a greedy behavior. Most of us wouldn’t want to be perceived as stubborn, but from time to time we may display stubborn behavior.
When we are able to accept every human character trait, and that because we are just human, that we sometimes may inadvertently display such a trait, that acceptance makes us less rigid, defensive, and anxious in social settings, and hence, our level of worrying diminishes drastically.
When you catch yourself worrying excessively ask yourself the following question: “What character trait am I now unwilling to accept as part of myself?”. Often times, just reflecting on unacceptable character traits reduces stress, worry, and tension immediately.
Step 8: Become aware of distorted thoughts.
Worriers have a whole range of distorted thoughts such as:
- Fortune telling – trying to predict the future.
- Mind-reading – assuming to know what other people are thinking.
- Taking things personally – assuming responsibility for other peoples actions.
- Self-blame – assuming blame even for events outside their control (it’s always their fault).
- Magical thinking – (i.e. the rooster who thinks it made the sun rise).
- Worst-case scenario thinking – worriers adopt a negative bias on their thinking.
A worrier believes that if they make a mistake it is somehow a catastrophe rather than just something that is annoying or inconvenient. However, when they have concluded that something is catastrophic, they also usually give up trying to look for alternative strategies or problem-solving tactics. Therefore, they end up passive and helpless rather than proactively trying to influence their situation.
When they have concluded that something is catastrophic, worriers don’t look for evidence of the opposite. They totally neglect that they have been wrong in the past.
Becoming aware of distorted thought patterns, and putting in the effort in regards to overcome them and adopting healthier thinking patterns is important in order to relieve stress and worrying.
Step 9: You have the ability to handle a problem when it is actually real.
People often worry because they doubt their problem-solving ability to deal with problems and challenges when they actually occur. A worry such as; “What if I become nervous during the presentation?”, scares the worrier because he is unable to believe that his intelligence, experience, spontaneity, and skills will rise to the occasion and come up with a beneficial strategy and the appropriate action when the time comes and the situation demands it.
In order to overcome stress and worries it is important to trust your abilities. Worriers often don’t trust their memory, their spontaneity, their knowledge, or their past experiences. They often focus solely on what they lack in terms of skill and ability, and when they don’t believe in their own ability, then everything is treated as an emergency, and this stresses the body.
An effective exercise can be to imagine that you are asked by a friend to give advice on the situation or problem. Studies show that worriers are not good when it comes to giving advice to themselves, but by depersonalizing the challenge and visualizing that someone else is going through that same problem increases skill, calm, and confidence when they have to give pretend-advice to a friend.
If you have doubt regarding your skills and knowledge when it comes to handling a situation, then it will be effective to increase your problem-solving capability by learning and acquiring greater skill in the area where you feel stuck. Go see a therapist, a coach, or a mastermind group etc. Learning and practicing increases self-confidence, while worrying decreases it.
A character trait of worriers and people that stress a lot is that they are comfort seekers and that they avoid situations that are uncomfortable. A central goal of psychotherapy is to learn to tolerate what can be called constructive discomfort. However, progress depends on your willingness to do things that are uncomfortable but that you know are constructive. Therefore, in order to overcome excessive worrying, the defense mechanism avoidance must be avoided at any cost.
Step 10: Accept uncertainty.
Worriers equate uncertainty with a negative outcome. If they are in a situation they don’t control, they expect it to turn out badly rather than believe that one way or another things will turn out for the good. Studies show that 85 % of what people worry about have a positive or neutral outcome. Furthermore, in the 15 % of cases when a problem actually occurs, worriers stated in 80 % of the cases that they handled the problem better than they thought they would.
Since worriers equate uncertainty with a negative outcome, it makes sense on one level that they worry as a strategy to try to become certain. However, this is a faulty assumption that negates that what actually keeps a person safe are his abilities and skills, not his worries and fears. What keeps you safe when you cross the street is not your fear of getting hit by a car and die. What keeps you safe is your appreciation of life, your will to live, and your awareness. Your abilities keep you safe, not your fears.
Worriers are not willing to accept any uncertainty. They want certainty when facing life challenges and decisions before they take any risks. But a person can’t have love in his life if he is not willing to take any risks. To trust is to take a risk.
Worriers put unrealistic pressure on themselves when it comes to the amount of time they give themselves before they make a decision. This causes a great deal of stress. If they are faced with a situation where a decision needs to be made in order to move forward, they assume that they have to make a decision before they are ready to do so. Allow yourself the time it takes to find inner certainty by letting decisions marinate in the mind before making a decision. As a free person you always choose to do something, you don’t “have to” or “must” do something.
Step 11: Let other people take their own responsibility.
Worriers often have a difficult time handling mixed feelings and ambivalence. They think that they shouldn’t have mixed feelings towards people just because they know them. This attitude often causes awkward situations when worriers assume beforehand that people will not live up to their promises or responsibilities, and then they take other peoples responsibilities or do other peoples work in order to prevent what they fear will be an uncomfortable situation. Realize that every problem in the world is not solely up to you to solve. Other people are also responsible to do their part.
When you in advance assume that people will not take their responsibility you have pre-judged those people and that causes stress and worry when you are interacting or dealing with them.
It will calm you down and relieve a lot of stress and worry when you take the risk and trust that other people will fulfill their responsibilities. And if they should disappoint and not live up to their responsibility then you can deal with them from a position of strength and clarity when that actually happens.
To trust is a decision. You choose to take the risk of giving another person your trust, and by doing so you assume that that person has good intentions and your well being as a priority. However, by giving another person your trust, you are also saying that you are willing to be fooled and cheated by that person. You choose to live with that uncertainty, because the opposite is not an option because that would mean living a life of suspiciousness, paranoia, stress, and worry.
Step 12: Exercise your ability to observe your thoughts.
When the body is tense and stressed then the thoughts in the mind are also tense and stressful. This means that priority number one when dealings with stressful thoughts and worries should be to calm down the body, because when the body is calm, the thoughts also becomes calmer. To use the Tempo Breathing Observing technique described above accomplishes this.
We have a tendency to believe thoughts that are accompanied with feelings in the body. The thought; “What if I wake up tomorrow ten feet tall?” does not create any feeling, stress, or anxiety and therefore we don’t perceive the thought as true. Whereas the thought; “What if I forget what I’m going to say at the presentation tomorrow?”, might cause feelings, stress, and anxiety if we believe that the thought is true. However, just because the body is tense with stress and anxiety doesn’t mean that the thought in your mind is true.
To exercise the ability to calm the body through anxiety regulation techniques will also affect the ability to observe the thoughts rather than become engulfed by them. When the body is calm it is easier to observe thoughts and let them go, and not believe that thoughts are true and cling to them. To observe a thought means to be able to hold a thought in mind and evaluate its validity and truthfulness to a greater extent than before. Often people worry and become stressed because they label a thought as true before they have rationally evaluated it. They have labeled the thought as true because the body is activated with a feeling or anxiety, but this way of evaluating thoughts often leads to faulty assumptions and conclusions.
Furthermore, a worrier has a tendency to believe that all negative thoughts are true, because he is not willing to accept the outcome of that thought/worry, and the perceived consequence he is not willing to accept of that thought/worry scares him when the thought arises in his mind, and that fear is used as “proof” of the thoughts truthfulness.
The ability to observe your thoughts means that the ability to put-off or let go of worries rather than indulging in them increases. This significantly reduces stress and anxiety related issues.
Step 13: Own every decision and choice.
Many people that are stressed of worried describe their actions or decision passively and tentatively, as if someone else are making their decisions, and not actively like someone aware of his own agency and responsibility.
To clarify, many people formulate their actions and decision as if they: ought to, should, have to, or must do certain actions or make certain decisions. Examples are plentiful, such as:
- I must work overtime today.
- I have to visit my parents this weekend.
- I should get going now.
- I ought to study tonight.
Even though formulating actions in this way is normal, and most people talk like that, if you struggle with excessive stress and worrying it helps a great deal to for a period formulate your actions and decision in an active way where you are the moving agent behind every decision:
- I choose to work overtime today.
- I prioritize to visit my parents this weekend.
- I want to get going now.
- I decide to study tonight.
Even though it might just seem like a minor semantic detail, to speak and formulate decisions and actions by using active terms such as; choose, prioritize, want, and decide, enhances personal power, drive, and responsibility. This increases energy and motivation because you view yourself as the prime mover and the decider behind your every move. On the other hand, when you address reality in passive and tentative ways you view yourself as the victim of circumstances and without any say in your daily actions. This contributes to stress, depression, and worry, because you then view life as just “happening to you”.
Make it a habit to describe yourself not as the spectator, but rather as the doer in your own life, even though it might sound strange at first to formulate yourself in this way. Own up to every choice and decision by using verbs such as: want, choose, decide, and prioritize. To describe every action you take in this way gives you a greater sense of power and energy because you no longer describe yourself as a victim subject to random forces in life. This reduces stress and worry significantly.
Step 14: Take control of your time and find a balance.
The last point, taking control of your time and finding a balance, continues from the previous point regarding owning every decision. Many worriers and people that live with a constant level of stress are poor when it comes to finding a balance in life between work, family life, and other responsibilities. Usually they end up giving too much attention to either one. Either they focus too much of their time and energy at work, or they focus too much on family, friends, and social activities, or they end up focusing too much on their hobbies, sports, or other leisure activities.
However, many successful people have through the years stated that the key to life is to find the right balance between work, family, and play. Too much focus on either area tends to ignore other aspects of life that are vital to a good and prosperous existence.
In order to find your balance in life you have to be comfortable when stating your own truth and opinion to people. Many worriers are conflict-avoidant and shy away from saying what they want to say because they don’t want to “offend” anyone or start an argument. This worry is based on the habit of taking responsibility that is not yours. Other people are responsible for acting integrous and not acting-out when faced with the truth.
In order to become more comfortable finding your own balance it is necessary to accept the fact that you can only be at one place at a time. Many worriers and people that struggle with a lot of stress feel guilty because they choose where they want to spend their time. They assume that other people are privy to decide how they should spend their time and that they have to explain and defend to other people why they choose to prioritize their time the way they do.
A trick that might help out with the guilt of deciding yourself how you want to spend your time is to formulate every decision as what you choose to say “yes” to. Since you only can be at one place at a time, saying what you say “yes” to, rather than saying what you’re saying “no” to somehow alleviates guilt for people that are not comfortable owning their own decisions and time. It makes you weaker when you allow other people to decide how you are going to spend your time. As an adult person, the responsible way to act is to assume responsibility towards every decision you make.
When your natural tendency is to divide your time and to find your balance in life based on your values and responsibilities you become less stresses and worried because you accept that time is constant, and that you do not own anybody 100 % of your time and effort since life consists of many areas that needs to be addressed in order to achieve balance and fulfilment.