Worry is an inescapable part of life. It’s normal to worry about a past-due bill, an upcoming job interview or the new sound coming from your car’s engine. In these cases, those anxious feelings motivate you to act in your best interest and fix problems before they grow.
However, for many people, feelings of worry spiral out of control. Those feelings aren’t limited to things within their control but extend to things outside of their control – a parent’s health, the safety of a child with a freshly minted driver’s license or an employer’s next round of lay-offs.
Constant worry can take a tremendous toll on your physical and mental health, causing sleepless nights, muscle tension, headaches and stomach problems. It can also make it difficult to focus on daily tasks at home, school or work. To cope with these feelings, many people self-medicate with unhealthy habits or addictive substances. Chronic worry can also be paralyzing, preventing you from addressing potential problems, such as giving that new driver plenty of practice behind the wheel and updating your resume.
Fortunately, it’s possible to retrain your brain and turn off anxious thoughts. Chronic worry is a habit that can be broken as you teach your mind to take a more balanced, realistic perspective.
Understanding the Nature of Worry and Lack of Control
We place a lot of faith in our own abilities to make sure everything works out the way it’s supposed to. In general, we feel happiest and most at peace when we feel as though we’re in control, and we experience the most anxiety when we believe that forces outside of us have more control.
In 1966, Julian B. Rotter coined the phrase “locus of control” to compare the feelings we experience when we believe an outcome is based on our actions versus an outside force. Those who believe that their own actions have the biggest impact on an outcome have an internal locus of control, while those who attribute outcomes to outside forces such as fate, luck or chance have an external locus of control. This idea exists on a spectrum, with most people believing that an outcome depends on a mix of internal and external factors.
The level of control someone believes they have can significantly impact their well-being. A small 2021 study that looked at 324 social workers and 403 social work students in Germany observed that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many study participants moved from an internal locus of control to an external locus of control. The study’s authors suggested that participants’ diminished feelings of control caused them to feel powerless, negatively impacting their well-being. A similar study that featured 615 participants in Saudi Arabia showed that people who believed they had more control over an outcome experienced fewer emotions associated with depression.
In many cases, the worries we lose sleep over are tied to things outside of our control. We generally don’t experience chronic worry over the things we feel we have a handle on. Instead, we worry about the things outside of our influence – the situations or events that could have a devastating impact on ourselves and those we love despite anything we do to prevent or prepare. This lack of control fuels our anxious thoughts and can take a toll on our mental health.
Coping Strategies for Dealing with Uncertainty
While a life without worry may not be realistic, there are some coping strategies for reducing worry that may help you regain peace.
Give Yourself a Daily Worry Period
If your goal is to let go of anxious thoughts, scheduling time to worry about life’s uncertainties may seem counterproductive. However, simply telling yourself to stop worrying is rarely effective; in fact, it often just makes those anxious thoughts stronger, scarier and more persistent. Instead, try setting aside a worry period every day. During this time, you’re free to dwell on the things that could disrupt your world. The rest of the day is worry-free, however, and any anxious thoughts that come into your mind need to be put on hold until your next worry period.
Think About What You Can Control
When your brain begins to travel down the path of things you can’t control, shift your focus onto things that are within your control. For example, you may not be able to completely prevent a health crisis such as cancer, but you can take steps to minimize your risk factors. You don’t have control over whether your employer downsizes your department, but you can focus on cultivating marketable skills.
Challenge Your Worries
The greater our worry is over something, the more likely our brain is to distort it. It becomes easy to overestimate the likelihood of a bad outcome and assume that the worst-case scenarios are all but inevitable. You may also begin to discredit your resilience and ability to adapt to challenges and problems. Instead of assuming that all your worries are valid and realistic, look for ways they distort reality.
Create and Stick to a Daily Routine
Creating and maintaining a daily routine is a simple way to maximize your feelings of control. Regaining control over your day through consistent sleep and wake times, predictable mealtimes and enjoyable hobbies can bring peace. Additionally, because anxiety tends to be worse at night, going to bed before you’re overtired can be an effective way to minimize late-night worry.
Limit Your Exposure to Negative News
Negative news gets the most attention – the more shocking an event, the more likely people are to home in on it. For that reason, news outlets seem to be in a constant scramble to see who can put out the most unsettling content the fastest. While the events that we see unfold – multivehicle pileups on highways like the ones we drive every day, random acts of violence and devastating weather events – may be truly tragic, we can get a distorted idea of our odds of experiencing something similar. If your worries stem from things you read in the news, consider cutting down or even eliminating your exposure to these types of stories.
Mindfulness and Acceptance Techniques
Worry happens in the mind, so along with changing external factors, it may be helpful to also incorporate some mindfulness techniques for managing anxious thoughts.
Focus on the Present Moment
Instead of worrying about the future, focus on being fully engaged in the present moment. For many, setting aside time to meditate is the most effective way to disrupt the loop of worries and negative thoughts. Despite what pop culture portrays, meditation doesn’t require incense, candles and sitting cross-legged on the ground. Simply choose a comfortable, quiet place and find a guided meditation online or through your favorite music streaming app to get you started.
Practice Deep Breathing
When we worry, our breathing often becomes faster, causing our bodies to tense up. When you’re experiencing anxious thoughts, turn your focus to your breathing. Concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths and releasing tension from your muscles.
Keep a Journal
For many people, journaling is an effective way to manage anxious thoughts. While some people find that writing down their worries permits their brains to let the thoughts go, others find more benefit in writing down their short-term goals, positive affirmations and things they’re thankful for.
Building Resilience and Mental Well-Being
We all face traumatic events and disappointing outcomes at some point in our lives, from everyday nuisances to significant events with life-altering impacts. These challenges affect everyone differently and there’s no timeline for making peace with something like the death of a loved one, an unexpected relocation or a job loss. However, in most cases, people eventually adapt to life-changing situations and stressful events. This resilience enables you to not only get through difficult circumstances but also experience personal growth along the way.
There are several ways to build resilience while tackling chronic worry, including:
- Proactively managing the problems in your life
- Keeping challenges in perspective
- Accepting that change is a part of life
- Maintaining an optimistic outlook
- Seeking help from a mental health care professional when necessary
According to one study, over a quarter of American adults have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, meaning that you likely have many people in your life who are also experiencing challenges with letting go of worry. Fortunately, help is available to you through Restore Mental Health. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and find the help you need.