Can You Stop Worrying?

A lot of people worry about things they can’t control. Research says almost 40% of us do it every day. Worry is a mental strategy aimed at adapting to situations we view as uncertain, unknown, dangerous or problematical. In essence, worry is an anxiety disorder – an attempt to eliminate unpleasant surprises and harmful risks from our lives. Which is impossible.

Worriers tend to overthink their circumstances, believing there is something they “should” be doing about their concerns. They have a well developed antennae for picking out threats, perceived ills or potential hazards and losses in their environment. Worry provides them with an illusion of control – they falsely think worrying is “doing something” about the situation at hand.

Just as stress has both positive and negative consequences, worrying (a little) can be a good thing. It’s beneficial when it ultimately motivates self-enhancing action, such as preparing more carefully for your next exam or employment interview. Worry that engenders an all-consuming anxiety that prevents positive behaviours is not helpful. By blowing possibly negative consequences of a future situation out of proportion, something known as catastrophizing, you set yourself on a path toward even deeper rumination about the dire possibilities.

What may seem like sensible strategies for minimizing worry don’t actually work. Seeking or being offered reassurance is a waste of time. We can’t turn off the worrisome thoughts in our heads with a simple instruction. Trying to stop your thoughts on anything typically has a rebound effect that only makes it worse. In psychology, this is called ironic process theory. Try it yourself: for the next ten seconds, do not think of the colour blue. Go ahead: try not to think of the colour blue. Deliberate thought suppression only leads to an increase in those thoughts.

What can you do when your worries overcome needed actions? I begin most of my coaching relationships with a self-awareness diagnosis. In that way, I get a deeper understanding of what prevents these designated “superstars” from fully realizing their potential. One antidote to needless worry is self-knowledge, and that’s certainly an aspect of my job as coach to encourage. The more we understand who we are and why we do what we do, the more effective we can become. Self-awareness enables us to better understand and confront the emotional “soft spots” that trigger stress, anger, frustration, confusion and fear. The more we understand ourselves, the closer we get to developing a worry-free immune system.

Albert Ellis, the father of rational emotive behaviour therapy, identified 21 ways to stop worry (you can watch his talk on YouTube – be forewarned, it’s almost 90 minutes long). Among his advice is the need to start small: diminishing one core anxiety can result in lowering the intensity of others. If you’re worried about making a successful business pitch, understand the source of your anxiety. If you believe your presentation must be “the best ever,” you’re deluding yourself about what counts in making a successful pitch. The real cause of performance anxiety is your self-concept, not how good your presentation will be.

Expectations and aspirations are self-fulfilling. If you expect you will succeed, the odds of doing so are significantly enhanced. The same happens when you expect to fail. If you think you can’t fail, you’re deceiving yourself. Mentally rehearse: imagine yourself presenting to your client, doing well and then thinking about how you can improve the next time you give your talk. Focus on progress, not amazing.

Listen to, then modify, the words you use to describe your anxiety. Using dramatic language, like disaster, awful, terrible or unbearable, only amplifies your tension. The reality (a description I apply to Ellis’ theory) is that the event hasn’t even occurred, so your assessment of consequences as yet unknown is more than a waste of time – it’s exacerbating your worry. The perspective needed is knowing everyone fails. It’s how we get better. We rationalize success (explain it away) but we dwell on failure, which is why we learn from it.

Thinking you will or should succeed at everything is delusional and the primary cause of self-induced stress. In my judgement, all stress is self-induced. Teach yourself to describe how you feel about your concerns or uncertainties without dramatizing your emotions. By reframing your feelings with more realistic and less extreme language, you can move away from seeing yourself as not being capable of dealing with the moment at hand.

Purposefully put yourself into challenging, even difficult situations. We learn to tolerate tension by engaging in uncomfortable situations and discovering “the worst” never happens. By showing yourself you can deal with anxiety and not “fall apart,” you are less likely to turbo-charge your normal reactions into negative, self-defeating behaviours.

Distinguish productive worry (something you can and should address) from unproductive worry (the things you can’t control). Realize that some questions, like “Why is life so unfair?” or “Why did this happen to me?”, have no answers. Deal with the questions you can actually solve. Avoiding them will not make them disappear.

Forget perfection. You don’t need it and you can’t achieve it anyway. You want progression – this alone will reduce your worry. Accept things as they are, not as you think they ought to be. Uncertainty and unpredictability is the way the world works. Understand that life is about choices and that there is often constructive discomfort in bringing those choices to fruition. Change doesn’t always mean doing what you want to do; it occasionally means doing what you don’t want to do and have been avoiding.

We overcome worry by accepting our limitations, foibles and flaws. You are a human being; you are destined to fail. It’s never the falling down that defines us; it’s whether we are able to pick ourselves up, learn from the experience and carry on. Failure is inevitable, not fatal. It’s not a sign of defectiveness, it’s just information we can use. Worry undermines motivation and “taking charge” happens when you discover what is truly meaningful for you. That’s what life is all about. Refuse to upset yourself. Because that’s all worrying really is.