Worry is a normal human activity – we all do it from time to time. But for some people, it dominates their life. So how can you stop worrying? The initial answer is that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop completely, but you might be able to reduce it. Before we proceed, lets define what worry is.
Worry is a mental activity where we speculate about potential negative outcomes in our future; those outcomes feel threatening, which produces anxiety. This speculation often arises from uncertain or unpredictable situations in the present day, anything we might feel is out of our control.
That lack of control or predictability is very uncomfortable for some people, so they attempt to reduce the uncertainty (and increase control) by speculating about what might happen.
If you speculate about what positive things might happen, then you’re lucky, because most people are drawn to speculate about the negative possibilities, the threatening or unpleasant outcomes which they would rather avoid. If your thoughts often begin with “What if…(something negative) happens?” then you’re probably a worrier. The common themes for worrying are almost universal – family, relationships, work, health, finances or being negatively evaluated by others, for instance.
Some forms of worry are about planning strategies to avoid these potential negative outcomes, or how to deal with them if they’re unavoidable. But quite often people are so anxious about the imagined outcome that they don’t even get to the planning stage, they just turn away from the unpleasantness, and try to avoid thinking about it. This is where alcohol comes into the picture for a lot of people – it is very effective at silencing worries (in the short term at least).
Now we’ve got a working definition of what it is, so how do you stop worrying?
People who worry excessively tend to make threatening interpretations of ambiguous circumstances – and unfortunately life is full of ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. Additionally, worriers often lack confidence in their decision-making or problem-solving abilities, which can lead to doubt about their own ability to cope. As such, an objective evaluation of your coping ability might be helpful – if you think back to a few crises you’ve experienced in your life, ask yourself how you managed to cope with them, did you work out a solution to the crisis, did you get through it eventually? You might be able to recall a few situations where you didn’t handle things so well, but it’s probable that overall, you’ve managed to deal with everything in your life thus far. This suggests you’ll be able to handle everything else that might happen too, doesn’t it? That’s not to say that you can avoid all unpleasant situations in your life, but that you’ll be able to deal with them when they occur, you will cope. This could mean that speculating about hypothetical outcomes is unnecessary.
How could you learn to tolerate uncertainty better? How could you reduce the need to control your life so rigidly? Is it possible to accept that the future is unknowable, unpredictable, and be ok with that? In fact, is uncertainty unavoidable in life? Ask yourself if there are certain scenarios you never worry about. For instance, some people worry about paying for their children’s education, yet they don’t worry about war breaking out. Why is that? Why don’t you worry about nuclear war? The answer to that question might provide useful insights about the issues you do worry about.
We need to look at what processes maintain your worry, what beliefs you hold which give your worries strength. What purpose do you think your worrying serves? Why do you do it? What might potentially go wrong if you didn’t worry? Does worrying help you in any way at all? Does being a worrier say something good about who you are even? These are important questions to consider, because these beliefs may be unhelpful for you, and may need some adjustment if you want to stop worrying.
If you’re someone who avoids thinking about solutions for imagined negative outcomes, then those outcomes remain threatening, and continue to pop into your mind to make you anxious. A way to deal with this is to actively imagine the unpleasant scenarios occurring, and then consider how you would react, how you would deal with the situation, what support you would call on, and what options you might have available. It’s not a pleasant exercise to engage in, for sure, but the idea is to expose yourself to the imagined threat, and then imagine yourself solving the problem, coping with the situation somehow.