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Suddenly the world around you becomes blurry, and endless waves of “what ifs” swap over you. Thinking about all that could happen hypothetically, imaginarily, and possibly. Infinite thoughts running through your head are filling your body with anxiety, while fear is creeping into your mind. Yet, you try to convince yourself that being prepared for the worst-case scenarios is better than ending up hurt or disappointed.
Humans have the ability to anticipate future events with their minds and think ahead. This skill allows them to anticipate obstacles or problems and become more efficient and adaptive. But anticipating future outcomes is not always a helpful skill, for example, when anticipating unlikely events or things that are not in your control. If your worries are focused on these aspects, they might become uncontrollable, and you might start to worry habitually instead of in response to particular triggers, which can become problematic.
Occasionally worrying over future events in your life is normal, but excessive worrying can feel like being stuck in an endless loop of anxious thoughts. It can be the feeling of your chest tightening, your palms getting sweaty, or your head whirling with anxiety. It might take up much of your energy and make it difficult to focus on your daily life. Constant worrying, negative thinking, and always expecting the worst-case scenario can have a negative impact on your mental health and might lead to the development of sleeping troubles or a generalized anxiety disorder (Newman et al., 2019).
The reason you worry
There can be different reasons why you can’t stop worrying. Firstly, your natural alarm system might be triggered, and it is trying to protect you from potential threats by manifesting in the form of worries. Generally, humans are problem-solvers by nature, and as soon as your brain identifies a problem, it works on coming up with a solution. And people tend to worry more the more emotionally invested they are in a problem. Secondly, it could be that you find yourself in a life transition and life seems more uncertain and unpredictable, causing you to worry more. Lastly, you might also have been brought up in an environment where worrying was often displayed or taught to be done, as the world was seen as a fearful place. The root of worrying usually comes from a place of fear, such as the fear of losing control, failure, being judged, or experiencing disappointment. So, worrying serves as a means of protecting us against these fears (Gillihan, 2016).
Worry vs. Rumination
There’s a difference between worrying and ruminating. Rumination refers to the activity of digging up and turning over things that happened in the past. It includes circular patterns, often self-critical or angry patterns, that may sound like “Why me...?” or “If only I had...?”. Worrying has been defined as thinking about future events and being left feeling anxious or apprehensive. With worry, we're considering all sorts of negative possibilities by asking ourselves “What if…?”, in an attempt to increase certainty.
What to do when you can’t stop worrying
Simply stopping to worry is easier said than done. One important thing to remember is that uncertainty is a natural part of life, whether it is about meeting someone new, wondering whether they like you or working hard and hoping it will pay off. Although we can try to eliminate parts of the uncertainty, we will never be able to know for certain what happens, and that is okay. You don’t have to have everything under control in life; sometimes it’s fine to just let life be and enjoy the present.
If you find yourself worrying, try to pinpoint what you’re worried about and where the worries are coming from. It might help to write down your thoughts or share them with someone in order to sort through them. Once you have identified them, try to reflect on your worries by asking yourself if there is anything you can do about them, whether it is realistic that certain events occur, how your worries make you feel, if they’re beneficial to you, and who you would be without these worries. If you’re able, try to come up with a plan on how to solve your concerns. That will lift some of the weight you’re carrying and might help you to eliminate some of your worries.
A very helpful way to cope with worrying is the “worry window”. It’s based on the idea of setting aside a fixed period of time (5-15 minutes) every day, in which you’re allowed to worry - your so-called “worry time”. Schedule it around the same time every day, during which you can worry as much as you like and give into the “what ifs” of your mind. Once the time is up, however, try to prevent yourself from worrying throughout the rest of the day. Of course, thoughts might still pop up outside of your “worry time”, and it’s okay to acknowledge them, but don’t indulge in them. Simply, try to let go of your worries and stop your mind from going there because tomorrow you will take your time to interact with them during your worry window. Suppressing your worries or telling yourself not to worry usually doesn’t stop them from coming up. So, try to distract yourself when your worries come up by moving, talking to someone, or doing anything that makes you forget about them. The “worry window” allows you to learn how to put limits on your anxious thoughts and take control of them.
One visualization exercise to help you let go of your worries involves imagining yourself holding and blowing balloons. Along with air, you're going to fill the balloons with all your worries. All you have to do is, think about one of your worries and exhale your worries into the balloon. Tie up the balloon and hold it into the wind. Watch the balloon take off from your hand into the air and float away, taking your worry and tension with it. Keep blowing up balloons until all of your worries are gone. This exercise can help you calm your thoughts and feelings of anxiety.
Letting go of your worries takes time and practice. It’s in our nature to worry, but you shouldn’t let your worries take control of your life and stop you from enjoying it. Becoming aware of your worries, facing them, and taking control of them can protect you from excessive worrying. You will not stop worrying, but you will be able to worry in a healthy manner.
Gillihan, S. J. (2016, October 7). 5 Reasons We Worry, and 5 Ways to Worry Less. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/think-act-be/201610/5-reasons-we-worry-and-5-ways-worry-less
Newman, M. G., Jacobson, N. C., Zainal, N. H., Shin, K. E., Szkodny, L. E., & Sliwinski, M. J. (2019). The Effects of Worry in Daily Life: An Ecological Momentary Assessment Study Supporting the Tenets of the Contrast Avoidance Model. Clinical Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 7(4), 794–810. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619827019
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