Worry occurs because there are a lot of real problems and catastrophes that could potentially occur in our lives. Fear of loss, whether of the things we have, our good health, careers we’ve worked hard for or even loss of our loved ones to death, can cause a lot of anxious feelings. Problems don’t have to come in the way of big, monumental happenings either to cause anxiety. The mere possibility of hardships can bring about endless worry if we allow ourselves to dwell on them.
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” ~Epictetus
We are our own worst enemy when we exacerbate our worries by catastrophizing scenarios in our own heads that haven’t even occurred yet, and statistically, probably won’t.
Whenever I am hit with a wave of anxiety (and it seems to be more common these days), I use these steps I’ve learned from simple, mindful living to get out of my own head.
Four Ways to Help Manage Worry
Deep breathing has always helped calm my nerves, but when I am particularly anxious, I like to close my eyes and breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, four times in a row. This helps settle my mind a little and release some of the tension in my body and usually in my jaw. Once my mind is more at ease, I do a quick body scan from my shoulders to my feet to make sure I relax any tightened muscles.
Identify the source of worry
Taking control of my mind through deep breathing then allows me to consider the source of my immediate anxiety with awareness – Why am I worried about this scenario right now? Is it based on a real, related experience in my life? Did I read something in the news that heightened my fear of that particular thing happening? Am I feeling out of control of myself, or another person? Identifying the source of the anxiety helps me understand how and why it is coming about.
No matter what we are worried about, we should always ask ourselves if we have any real control over the situation, or influence over the people within the situation. If the answer is no, then it’s time to embrace the mantra to ‘accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ There is a freeing of the mind if you can allow yourself to really recognize when you have zero control over a situation or person, and to accept whatever the outcome of the situation or their choices are. One of the most difficult lessons in life, that I remind myself of on a regular basis, is that we have so little control over most things. The main thing we can control is our ability to learn and grow from the good and bad situations, and use the experiences to become a better version of ourselves, if we want to. As we read in this Taoist parable, ‘Who knows what is good or bad.’
What if what you are worried about does happen?
If my first three methods don’t help relieve my anxiety, I allow myself to consider the possibility of what life might be like if the scenario actually unfolded the way I was imagining. After all, nothing in life is 100% certain. Walking my mind through the reality of an unlikely scenario helps me face and begin to release the anxiety and control it has over me.
For example, if I am worried about a teenager that hasn’t come home yet and I can’t reach them, I allow my mind to walk through a phone call or knock at the door from someone delivering terrible news to me about my child. I then consider what my response would be, and what would happen next. This may seem counter-intuitive, but visualizing the scenario and my response to it can sometimes help me feel more control over my emotions and lessen the anxiety.
When Your Worry Plays Out
Of course, we can never fully prepare ourselves for every situation that might happen or that could be extremely emotional and anxiety producing. Take my last example above about receiving a terrible call regarding one of my children. I actually included that example, because it is one of my worst fears, and a while later, I did receive a call.
Granted, it was a call from the teenage child I was worried about, so I knew at that moment they were okay, however, they had indeed gotten into a terrible car accident, miraculously unharmed, but very shaken. When I learned the extent of the accident and how close they came to being hurt very badly, or even dying, my nerves were on edge for days as I helped them through the aftermath.
During those same few days, my dad had a very bad pain in his back and went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with double pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism and was admitted for several days. This is something I had never even thought about, or worried about for that matter with his health, and yet I found myself in another real situation causing me worry.
With both of these situations happening simultaneously, one of them a worry that I had played out in my mind many times, and one being a new worry that I had never even previously considered happening, it was interesting to observe later, the level of anxiety that each situation had produced within me.
Even though my child was perfectly fine after the accident, I felt far more more anxious for far longer, replaying what ‘could’ have been the outcome of the accident in my head, which I am sure was exacerbated by all of the previous times I had run through the scenario in my mind, worried it would happen.
On the other hand, while my dad was actually sick in the hospital with fairly serious issues, I felt far less anxious and more trusting that he was being well cared for, and had no preconceived stories in my mind about what might happen, which made my anxiety over his situation far easier to manage and to let go of any feelings or need to somehow be in control of what was happening.
I’m sure some of the difference in anxiety between the two situations also had to do with one person being my father, and one being my child, but these two completely different scenarios reminded me that it is better not to get to the final method of trying to ‘manage’ worry, by imagining the ‘worst case scenario’ outcomes.
Three Ways to Reduce Your Tendency to Worry
Limit news consumption
The Pew Research Center has published some interesting data about news consumption, with an estimated 86% of Americans using their smartphones and other digital devices to keep up on news. Coupling that with the information that the average smartphone user spends between 5 and 6 hours on their device each day, not including work related use, it’s no surprise that our levels of worry and anxiety are heightened by such high levels of exposure to predominantly negative news and information from around the world each day.
Because I do value being knowledgeable about what is going on in the world around me, I still read the news, but I am very strict about when I allow myself to access it. Generally, I catch up on the news after I have been up for several hours and completed all of my morning routine, and sit down to begin my work day. This usually naturally limits the time I spend reading it, since I have work related tasks to dive into.
Gratitude is one of the main ways I am able to move forward through times of excessive worry. Thinking about those parts of my life surrounding the worry that I am grateful for can help diminish the worry, which is usually the result of fear of loss.
For example, I sometimes worry about finances, it’s true that money isn’t going as far as it used to. When I begin to feel the fear of possibly not having enough income to sustain our current way of living, I look around my home and consciously think about what I do have already, trips we have been able to experience and how grateful I am for what I have had access to up until this point in my life Thinking of these things pretty quickly brings me back to a state of mind where I am not nearly as concerned about the what-ifs of how life would be if we lose a significant amount of our financial freedom.
Go outside and move
One last method that I use to decrease worry and anxiety as it is happening, is to get outside and move. It isn’t enough sometimes for me to sit out on the porch in silence, as the anxious thoughts and worry can still get the best of me sitting in the stillness. It helps tremendously to ‘walk and worry’ instead of sit and think. Combining the outdoors with walking has been proven to increase our endorphins, which help regulate our mood, and can bring us back into a more positive state of mind.
Living in the PNW, this is harder for me during the rainy season, but I still make it a point to walk indoors on my treadmill with the window open for fresh air when it’s wet and cold out. Plenty of people brave the rain though, being from Arizona, it’s just not in my blood.
At the end of the day, chances are that your worries and anxiety are more about fear of loss, and less about an actual loss that has happened or can be guaranteed to happen. Taking steps like the ones above to protect your mental health and alleviate worry on a regular basis can lessen the overall amount of anxiety in your life and lead to more gratitude and contentment, no matter what lies in store.