Try these three strategies to keep your worries in check.
You know you’re a worrier if you can empathize with Flounder from The Little Mermaid or Marlin from Finding Nemo, Disney’s duo of anxious fish (do I detect a theme?). Likewise if you live by Mad-Eye Moody’s insistence on “constant vigilance!” Or if you identify with Fear from Inside Out (though that one’s almost too easy).
Regardless of which worrier you relate to, you’re in good company. It’s estimated that more than one-third of Americans—that’s over 100 million people—will struggle with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
However, for something so common, worry is something of an enigma.
While we all aspire to “don’t worry, be happy,” it’s hard to give up worry. Even though it makes them unhappy and uncomfortable, many worriers claim it keeps them safe, prepared, and two steps ahead of harm. In a way, it does, but not in the way you’d think.
Sometimes worry can seem like the good guy—we credit it with helping us get motivated, stay on top of things, and have a plan B and C and D ready to go. Indeed, for those of us wired to worry, anxiety is familiar and weirdly reassuring.
But more often, worry is the bad guy. We can’t stop our anxious thoughts. We toss and turn and lie awake long after it’s time to wind down, get stuck in our head when we should be in the moment, and overthink everything from our career path to whether or not we should pay 40 extra cents for an organic tomato.
Not to mention, worry is exhausting. Worry’s partner in crime is physical tension—show me someone who worries and I’ll show you someone with frequent headaches, teeth worn from grinding, a tight neck or back, or end-of-the-day exhaustion.
If that wasn’t enough, the way we cope with worry can intensify the issue: stress eating, bugging our partner for reassurance, time-wasting attempts to distract ourselves. Even our healthy coping can get hijacked by worry: “What if I’m not meditating right?” “Does this pacing count as exercise?”
So why on Earth do we bother? Why do we get so worked up so often? Here is why worry “works,” plus three tools to help you stop.
Why We Worry: Fretting Is Easier Than Feeling
No one would call worrying a hobby, but it’s definitely an activity. An invisible activity, but something we do nonetheless. It’s hard to get other stuff done if we’re worrying. You might worry instead of sleeping or sitting down to a proper meal, or you might do it instead of focusing on the here and now.
Why do we pour so much of our time into it? Surprisingly, worry serves a very important purpose. It allows us to avoid our negative feelings.
For example, do you know someone who, when criticized, gets angry instead of hurt? Or someone who, when they get bad news, feels guilty instead of sad? It’s common to swap out one negative emotion for another that’s easier to deal with.
So as unpleasant as anxiety is, it’s often preferable to feeling other negative emotions like grief, shame, sadness, or despair. Worrying keeps us in a more shallow, cognitive, verbal headspace. It’s uncomfortable, but feels better than other, more visceral negative emotions. In other words, worry is the rock that goes skipping over the surface of Lake Catastrophe rather than sinking into the depths.
A slightly different interpretation comes from a study in the journal Behavior Therapy that hypothesizes that worriers are hypersensitive to jolts of negative emotion. The gap between feeling good to feeling bad is jarring and downright excruciating. Therefore, worry acts as a buffer. It keeps worriers in a state of constant negativity, but it shrinks the gap they have to bridge if negative emotion strikes.
Therefore, rather than feel good and be blindsided with uncomfortable negative emotion when the other shoe drops, worriers can stay in a prepared state of low-level distress. It’s protective, in a sense, even if it’s uncomfortable.
With that, how can we stop worrying? Here are three tools of varying power—first, I’ll give you a can opener. Next, I’ll give you a cordless drill. And we’ll end with a big old chainsaw.
Tip #1: Pick a time to worry.
Even though this is the least intensive of the three tips, this tool is no slouch.
Worry is like a goldfish that grows as big as the tank you put it in. Therefore, by limiting the amount of time you allow yourself to worry, worries stay small rather than taking up your whole day.
So set aside a specific 30-minute chunk—maybe right after lunch, or the three o’clock slump, or right after dinner—and designate it as your “worry time.” The only time to avoid is right before bed, for obvious reasons.
Then, when worries bubble up outside of your designated time, ask yourself, “Can I do something about this right now?” For instance, if you start to worry that you forgot to pay your credit card bill, take action and pay it. If you just fought with your partner and you’re worried you hurt their feelings, take action and apologize.
But if you start to worry that you’ll die alone, or that your kid could be in a school shooting, or that you’re going to end up with Alzheimer’s, there’s nothing to do at the moment. So punt it. Kick it to your worry time. Chances are, when worry time rolls around, you’ll have forgotten about whatever was making you uneasy, or at the very least, the thought will have lost its urgency. Think of it as the best kind of procrastination because the task usually disappears.
And if it sticks around? Go ahead and worry about it for a few minutes. The point of worry time isn’t to suppress worries and never have them. The point is to contain the worry so it doesn’t contaminate your life like an oil spill.
Tip #2: Experiment with acting confident and decisive.
We all have that friend who goes through life taking things in stride. They take the good with the bad, roll with the punches, and bend without breaking.
Now, that friend may have some of their own problems—they miss out because they didn’t plan ahead, their spontaneity can sometimes tip over into impulsivity, and people get mad because they can completely space out on the follow-through.
But anxiety isn’t one of their problems.
So when you’re sick of feeling anxious—you’ve sunk eight hours into researching which coffee maker to buy, you won’t let yourself hit “send” on that job application even though you’ve checked it for typos 10 times, or you’re worried your partner is dead because you haven’t heard from them for three hours, ask yourself what that friend would do.
And then, try it on for size. Do what your non-anxious friend would do. It will feel wrong at first, but here’s the benefit. Experimenting with non-anxious behavior forces you to try on a more flexible way of thinking and acting.
And, once you’ve road-tested researching coffee makers for 10 minutes, checking your job application twice, and texting your partner only after you haven’t heard from them all day, you realize your worry wasn’t keeping you safe after all. You were safe all along.
Tip #3: Focus squarely on the very worst that could happen.
Here’s the chainsaw I promised you. This tool is not for the faint of heart, but it gets the job done. Time to go deep.
A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Therefore, to break yourself out of the shallow, verbal, “what if”-ing realm of worry, actually imagine the worst-case scenario. Picture whatever you fear vividly, in great detail, as if it were the worst scene in your personal horror movie.
Go big. If you’re worried you’ll end up alone, picture yourself alone, on Thanksgiving, in a crappy apartment with no one to hang out with. If you’re worried you’ll end up a failure, picture yourself living under a bridge. If you’re worried about health or safety, don’t picture the actual car accident or the moment you’re diagnosed with cancer; instead, picture the worst-case scenario of the grief and loss that follow.
You know you’ve found the right image if you well up just thinking about it. Once you’ve found it, picture it in your mind’s eye as vividly as possible and sit with the big yucky emotions it brings up for five minutes. Set a timer so you’re not tempted to throw in the towel. Then do it again. And again. The next day, rinse and repeat. Do it until it gets boring.
Because it will. As horrifying as this exercise is at the outset—after all, who wants to picture themselves sad, alone, filled with regret, grieving, or having failed—only the first couple times really sear your soul. After that, one of two things will happen. Either your brain will realize the total trainwreck you’ve imagined in your mind would never actually happen—you’d take action before things actually got that far—or your brain will get bored with the repetition that never comes to fruition.
Psychologists call this practice imagery exposure. It’s a doozy and best done with a trained mental health professional, not because it’s dangerous—it’s not—but because it’s helpful to have someone to help you troubleshoot and keep you on task.
In summary, we may agonize over things because we’d rather feel bad than worse. But if we roll back the worry, we realize feeling bad wasn’t keeping us safe after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to let ourselves feel good. In other words, with these three techniques, some practice, and perhaps some guidance from a mental health professional, you can get pretty darn close to “don’t worry, be happy.”