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Why Worrying Gets You Nowhere, and How to Get a Handle on That Destructive Habit

Why Worry Gets You Nowhere, and How to Get a Handle on That Destructive Habit
Image by Mayr (license).

Note: This is guest post by Mike King of Learn This.

Stress is a common complaint from people about why they don’t lead a happier life, a more positive life. And since worry is one of those factors that leads to stress, I want to explore in detail what worrying causes, the things we can learn from worry and some steps to take that let us change the way we experience worry.

Worrying Stems from Fear

It’s simple definition, worry is the act of thinking about the unknown in a way that we fear. Regardless of what the situation, if you think about that event in a way that makes you fear the outcome, that thought will stay with you, generate more similar thoughts and create constant worry.

If you hold onto these thoughts, they can quickly become overestimated and exaggerated to the point that what started out as a simple concern, becomes a painful fear. The fear itself can cascade itself by generating worse and worse thoughts that just reinforce the worry and stress associated with it.

Now, its quite natural to have fears about the unknown. There is nothing wrong with fear, in fact, it has a lot of advantages which I’ll outline below. What’s dangerous about these fears though is if you allow yourself to focus on only the results you fear, even when there is no basis or reason to believe that that is the likely outcome.

This is the kind of fear and worry that gets you nowhere! Ignoring every other possible outcome (and generally the most likely and often positive outcomes) to think constantly about the one outcome we fear is a major cause of stress. This often is the worst outcome or the thing we fear the most. The problems this can cause are:

  • Detracts your focus on useful activities.
  • Worry from fear is hard to forget or unlearn, so it re-occurs easily and becomes habitual.
  • Affects your other activities in a negative way (often pessimistically).

Advantages of Worry

There are some advantages you can have from worry as well:

  • Worry can guide you to recognize what is meaningful if you don’t know already.
  • Helps you to predict possible bad outcomes before they happen so you can avoid them.
  • You can demonstrate care and love to others by showing signs of worry when its about their welfare.

Recognizing Worry

One of the first steps to learning to handle worries in a more positive way is to first recognize when you are in fact worrying. These are common visible traits of a person who is worrying.

  • Irritability.
  • Confusion.
  • Nightmares.
  • Insecurity.

Each of these traits and potentially many more are signs of a person under stress caused by worry. When you can learn to recognize these in your own behaviors, you should stop and take note as to WHY you are feeling and behaving that way, its quite possibly due to worry.

Unfortunately, since most worriers don’t even realize they worry as much as they do, some extra steps can make it even easier to recognize. Get a notepad and pick a couple of times that you can write down your thoughts every day (perhaps at meals or at certain times each day).

Do this for about a week or two, noting what were your main thoughts (and likely worries) at that time. What kinds of things were you doing? Who were you spending your time / thoughts on? Noting these things will help to show some simple patterns and identify a few main areas that seem worrisome and consume a lot of thoughts. It’s not until you recognize what you actually do worry about, that you’ll be able to change it.

These can be anything from worries about major areas in your life like your safety and security, welfare of others, loss of relationship control, self-control of circumstances, approvals and decisions that you rely on others for, money and finances, your faith or spirituality, your health and wellness all the way down to simpler worries like finding time to do what you want, getting your tasks completed, talking to strangers in public, driving somewhere, etc.

5 Ways to Control and Limit Your Worry

So, with some of your specific worries identified, its time to look at ways to change those worries and turn them around from being such a negative force. The way to do this is to eliminate or at least for now, hide or minimize the negative thoughts and focus more on the positive outcomes with all the things that you normally find yourself worrying about. Some steps to do that are listed below. Combining several, all or just some of these with other techniques can make great progress to controlling and limiting your worry.

Write down all the positive outcomes and your most favorable one

Pick one of the items you regularly worry about and focus on it. Write down all the positive outcomes you have in relation to that activity and also write down your most favorable one, even if it doesn’t or is unlikely to ever happen. These positive outcomes are a reminder to all the good things that occur for that event and the most favorable one is a bit of carrot or a hope that it can be even better than you normally experience. This is important, as it can help to outbalance the negatives you are used to thinking.

Make your list as long as possible, try to get 10-20 positives for anything you normally find yourself stuck worrying about. Keep your list on hand and when you find yourself thinking about this event, read through your list. Reread it and even memorize it if it helps to keep attention to it. This process will slowly start to train your mind to look for different kinds of outcomes, the positive ones instead of the worst. This will reduce your worrying.

Appreciate the good things from the day

Before you go to bed, take just a couple of minutes and think of 3-5 good things that happened to you that day and be appreciative of them. Maybe someone was extra nice or gave you a compliment, perhaps you got something done quickly or particularly well, or maybe just seeing a few new positives in some event was a highlight of your day, whatever it was, say it out loud or to yourself, or pray about it, whatever you want to do, just show some appreciation for those good events. This is again a step in learning to see more positives around you.

Don’t think about the next day when going to bed, just memories of that day

One thing I’ve read that traps a lot of worriers is that they think about or plan their next day before they go to bed. I can’t urge against this strongly enough. You don’t want to go to bed with your mind focused on foreseen problems of the next day. Especially in the mind of a worrier, since it will distract your sleep, your dreams and just reinforce itself through the night in habitual negative ways. You are much better off keeping your last thoughts before sleeping positive and NOT worrying about the next day when you go to sleep.

Use affirmations about that outcome already having occurred

Changing your mindset is not an easy task (I’ve written about mastering your state of mind here), and changing your beliefs that guide your reasons for worry fits into that mindset deeply. Changing that requires a number of tools and while affirmations may not work for everybody, they are a proven powerful tool which can definitely help you to change your thinking about the outcomes you worry about.

Basically, you affirm (or state in a present sense) how you feel about being and experiencing the positive outcomes you desire with complete disregard to previous negative worries you’ve had in the past. Its best to do these affirmations out loud, and repeatedly.

An example of someone who has previously been worried about driving in the city might sound like:
I feel so independent and free to drive myself safely anywhere I like in the city.

Remind yourself of all the previous times the best action has occurred

Most worriers do so with little reason. If you count up all the outcomes and results of many events that a worrier stresses over, it’s easy to see that this worrying is usually unjustified. Looking at all the time the event just worked out and there was no reason to worry in the first place helps to re-enforce good outcomes. Use those numbers and histories to remind yourself that the most likely outcome is actually the desired outcome and any bad is VERY unlikely to occur so shouldn’t be worried about.

Avoiding Worry

So, even once you’ve learned to control and limit your worry, this can be taken even further by avoiding the process of worrying all together. I’m no expert here but I have found and read about several things that can help to free your mind of worry.

  • Avoid the source or situation that generates the worry in the first place (after all, its not that easy to eliminate the fear behind a worry)
  • Encourage new outcomes and be excited for new experiences. The fear of change usually turns this into worrying about the unknown so developing a sense of adventure for new experiences and outcomes will embrace them without needing to worry about them.
  • Keep your results and records and remind yourself of how often things really do go as expected for you and that you have nothing to worry about!
  • Don’t reinforce others to worry (make good outcomes welcome, encourage them)
  • Whatever happens happens. You probably had no control over it anyway, so just let it go.
  • Learn to just be, instead of wanting to control. This takes practice and faith, whether that is in you, others around you or something spiritual, faith is really the opposite of worry.

So, what can you really gain from worrying? Is there anything you can do about it anyway? What can you do next time to avoid worrying about it again? Ask yourself some of these questions next time you find yourself worrying. Use some of these techniques to kill that unnecessary worry time in your life and live a more positive and carefree life!

Mike is the author of Learn This, a productivity blog for self learning career, leadership and life improvement tips. He’s written many articles about finding your passion in life, goal setting and many other ideas around learning to have a better and more positive life. Please subscribe to his RSS feed here to read more of his articles!

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Michael Kirk May 19, 2008, 8:12 pm

    Dr. Martin Seligman writes about a ritual he does with his children before bed. He has them list all the good things that happened to them throughout the day and all the bad things. Almost always, the good outweighs the bad, and they are able to declare it a good day. I’ve started this with my young daughter and belive it to be a valuable practice in reframing our negative tendencies. Thanks for the post!

  • Mike King May 20, 2008, 7:18 am

    Thanks for the suggestion Chris. Yes, there are so many ways to stay more positive and improve things if you just look for it. Good for you to teach your daughter this at a young age. It WILL make a difference in her life.

    And thanks for posting my article Henrik!

  • Lucia May 20, 2008, 5:27 pm

    Whether I should call myself a “reformed worrier” or a “worrier in recovery” (much like an alcoholic, actually) is something I just decided to not worry about. What’s important is that over time I have used several of the techniques that Mike King suggests to overcome my worrying tendencies and have found them to be tremendously helpful and effective. Mike covered all of the bases in very clear, understandable and doable terms. Thanks to you both.

  • Emily May 20, 2008, 8:35 pm

    I admit I’ve just had time to skim over most of this article, but so far I really like what I have read. This was suggested to me by a friend. I’ve gotten a bit burned out on self-help type material but I will read this over again when I get home from work because it has struck a cord with me. My obsessive worry started as a child and has continually gotten worse. It’s morphed into panic attacks and has gotten so bad I’ve almost lost my job. It’s impacted almost every relationship I have. It’s driven me to suicidal ideation many times. Thanks for the realistic suggestions and for normalizing this experience for me. I will try some of these ideas although I admit I feel mostly hopeless around my addiction to worry.

  • Marc and Angel May 21, 2008, 1:40 am

    For me, worry is the byproduct of procrastination and/or being unprepared. Taking proactive action is pretty much the only cure I’ve found for it.

  • Mike King May 21, 2008, 7:52 am

    Thanks for the validation of my suggested techniques Lucia. I am very glad you enjoyed the article and I appreciate the confirmation from your own life experiences.

    Emily, I really encourage you to take some of these tips seriously and start practicing them. Pick just one and stick to it to form some habit. Don’t take on too many things at once, especially if you said you’re burnt out of self-help and a chronic worrier. I’d love to help in any way I can, please feel free to contact me on my site in a comment and I’ll contact you directly on email.

  • Growth Coaching May 21, 2008, 7:28 pm

    Very informative article! Learning to be aware of it and catching yourself is also helpful so you can divert that energy into a more positive and productive effort. Have a great day!

  • Emily May 24, 2008, 5:03 pm

    Thanks Mike! I have saved this blog entry and will contact you when I have a chance to get my thoughts in order. I am lucky in that I have a good psychiatrist and therapist I am working with. Your idea to take on small things is prudent and wise – I tend to sort of go full force ahead when it comes to finding a solution to my problems. But taking things slow makes more sense. I admit I get frustrated at myself because the worry seems to saturate my entire life but I am open to reviewing and trying your steps. Thanks again!

  • Inspiration for Change May 24, 2008, 6:45 pm
  • Mike King May 28, 2008, 2:16 pm

    Thanks so much for the encouraging comments everyone. Emily, I’m happy to read you are getting some expert help, I just wanted to offer any help for whatever I could do as well.

    Keep chipping away at things, little by little. It will make a difference!