How to Stop Worry from Limiting Your Life
There’s no doubt about it – there’s a lot to worry about in the world today. Our mobile tech reminders, news apps, and social media feeds allow every dysfunctional aspect of life and the world to hover only a few keystrokes, clicks or touches away.
You worry about the outcome of current events when you can’t foresee the future. You worry about things that haven’t happened yet and may never happen. You worry about things you invent in your own mind that don’t necessarily have any basis in reality. You live in a near constant, low-grade state of overwhelm that influences most everything that you do.
As an advisor and success coach, I frequently encounter worry issues – thoughts that can produce a sense of helplessness or action paralysis. Here’s how you can stop worry from limiting your life.
Worry is Harmful
Worry is simply not an empowering emotion. From a purely physical perspective, your body responds to your anxiety the same way it would react to a physical danger. When fear is realized, your brain prepares the body to rebuff or avoid it (the classic “fight or flight” syndrome that is so often referenced). Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream producing short-term effects including increased heart rate, tense muscles, flushed face, etc. Over a prolonged period of time, these hormones can have a toxic effect on the glands, nervous system and the heart. In fact there’s plenty of medical evidence linking chronic worry and emotional stress to a host of health problems… eventually leading to heart attacks, increased risk of stroke and stomach ulcers. As bad as those things are, there is a more immediate downside to worry: ineffectiveness.
“To be worthwhile, I must be thoroughly competent & exceptional.”
…but sometimes I make mistakes… and it feels like I’ve been making a lot lately.”
“I believe that I’m an honest and good employee.”
…but when my boss unexpectedly asked about our progress, I didn’t really give accurate information… I “sugar-coated” it… okay, basically I lied”
Worry relies upon imagination, distortion, irrationality, and overthinking – all of which interrupt reality and our ability to think clearly. We write about the affects of distraction here often but if this is new to you then consider this: when working we’re constantly making decisions on where to spend our resources (time, people, money, things…). And for every resource that you expend on a project is one that cannot also be spent on another. Your mental resources are similar. So when the majority of your attention is lost in thought, rumination, or otherwise focused elsewhere, your not noticing and participating in what’s happening right now – you’re not present. And like it or not, you’re not performing to your full abilities.
As worry becomes dominant, it sucks the ability to move forward right out of you. Instead of allowing worry to steal your effectiveness “catastrophizing” and “what-ifing” about what could happen, stay in the moment.
“I See You, Mara”
Mara is a devilish, supernatural-ish character from the life of the Buddha (who probably would take issue with my oversimplified description here, but it does help to convey the message). Mara generally represents our self doubt – thoughts like “I can’t do this,” “I’m not good at this,” and “this is never going to work out.” He frequently appears in the Buddha’s life (certainly in mine – and likely also in your own) – that inner voice that taunts us with the logic of our shortcomings. This often shows up as a cognitive dissonance – those times when our beliefs and our behaviors clash. We deal with cognitive dissonance in three ways:
Attempted Solution 1: We attempt to change the belief or the behavior so that we act consistent with our beliefs. Naturally, this is difficult. If it were easy then we’d rarely experience dissonance (which is not happening!) because we’d always act the way we think or feel.
Attempted Solution 2: We accept the poor self-judgment and attempt to reduce the importance of it. “It’s better than getting yelled at again,” we rationalize the misrepresentation. When confronting ourselves with our own poor decisions, we tell ourselves that “Life is short,” or “I’ll do it better next time.”
Attempted Solution 3: We work hard, acquire additional information, or otherwise use logic to change or minimize our beliefs (and if your imagination is good, this one can get wild!). The general thought is some version of, “”If I can just think this through, I won’t have to feel this way.”
When these thoughts focus on past events, we call it rumination – persistent and repetitive thinking commonly associated with depression (The word “rumination” describes what a cow does when “chewing its cud” or chewing, swallowing, regurgitating and then chewing it again). When these thoughts are about possible future events, we call it worry (which is commonly associated with anxious apprehension). Both result in some form of imagining/reliving/rehearsing a scene over and over again. (There are very few 2-hour movies I will watch over and over again, but I’ve proven that I can relive every line of a 4-minute conflict with my boss, or rehearse my next encounter with him, for half the night.)
None of those solutions work by the way, but that doesn’t change the way our minds attempt to ease our pain.
Actual Solution: Doubts and worries are thoughts… and thoughts are not facts. They are not reality, they’re just noise – the distorted constructs of our own mind. Call them out. Label them as only thoughts and their power over us fades. Or as the Buddha might say, “When you see Mara, Mara will vanish.”
If worry is affecting your life, consider these other strategies to deflect your fears:
1. Acknowledge your fears (see above – or work with a professional coach to increase your vision and decrease time spend dealing with the reaction).
2. If you have a nagging worry that you can’t seem to shake or resolve, or if it’s something totally beyond your ability to control, start a worry list. Use this list to keep track of those crazy issues and set aside a small amount of time on a limited basis where you will concentrate on letting your worry run wild. After that time is over, drop the worry from your mind until the next assigned worry time.
3. Learn to accept the limits of your power to control the world. Let go of what you cannot change and focus on what you can change. The world will be a better place if you use your personal power effectively.
4. Practice gratitude in your daily life. This will bring your attention to everything that’s right in your world and help you to let go of your fears and worry about what you perceive as being wrong.
5. Learn to love yourself and the people around you. Spend time with the people who really matter to you. Sharing your concerns and worries can help you realize that you are not in this alone. The views of others can help you put your fears in perspective. Notice the mistakes you tolerate or excuse in others and give yourself the same latitude.
6. Learn mindfulness techniques that encourage you being a passive observer of worried thoughts rather than having to be an active participant in the worrying process. For example, picture your worried thought as a cloud and watch it float across the sky without reacting to it; or, maybe bubbles that burst as they rise into your consciousness; or, as sticks in a stream.
More to come on each of these other 6 ideas… the point is, there are many options to your worrying. For now, let’s simply characterize worry as an activity takes more than it gives in life – and resolve to do less of it.
Have a thought or suggestion to share about worry? Add it to the comments below!