Everybody worries. But some people worry A LOT…
If you find yourself worrying all the time and in many different situations, you probably suffer from chronic worry.
Which is a problem for at least a few reasons:
- Chronic worry leads to chronic anxiety. Every unit of worry produces a corresponding unit of anxiety. Which means if you’re constantly worrying, you’re going to feel constantly anxious.
- Chronic worry is exhausting. Aside from making you really anxious, worrying all the time will also sap you of energy, motivation, and enthusiasm, leading to chronic fatigue, stress, and tiredness.
- Chronic worry causes procrastination. In some ways, the most tragic effect of chronic worry is that it leads to missing out on all sorts of good things in life—we avoid sharing that big ideas at work, publishing a book, starting a business, or asking that cute guy or girl out on a date. In other words, the more you worry, the more you avoid, and the more you avoid, the smaller your life becomes.
Unfortunately, the way most people try to manage chronic worry is all wrong and usually makes it worse in the long run…
- Distraction and coping give some temporary relief, but actually make worry more frequent long-term because they teach your brain to be afraid of worry itself.
- Analyzing your worry and where it comes from can feel productive in the moment but usually just leads to more worry and other forms of negative self-talk like rumination or catastrophizing.
- Medicating your worry can lead to some short-term relief, but can also cause you to ignore or delay addressing the root causes of your worry. In other words, it treats the symptoms but not the cause.
So, how should you address chronic worry?
Well, the key is to realize that chronic worry is a habit—and like all habits, it can be broken with the right approach.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to introduce you to 4 practical ways to break the habit of chronic worry for good.
1. Accept the worry, control the worrying
When it comes to ending chronic worry, there’s one absolutely critical distinction you need to know…
A worry is very different than worrying.
A worry is a thought that pops into your head without any intention on your part.
- You’re out for a walk around the neighborhood and a worry that Oh no, what if I forgot to lock the door and my house gets robbed pops into your mind.
- Or, you’re in a conversation with a coworker and a worry that Maybe that last comment was insensitive? He probably thinks I’m a jerk pops into your mind.
The critical thing to understand about a worry is that you don’t have any control over it. You didn’t decide to worry about what your coworker thought about you or whether your house was going to get robbed. And it’s a cardinal rule of emotional health that you shouldn’t try to control things you can’t actually control.
On the other hand, worrying is when you elaborate on or continue thinking about a worry.
For example, after the worry Maybe that last comment was insensitive? He probably thinks I’m a jerk pops into mind, you continue worrying with thoughts like:
- If he think I’m a jerk he’ll file a complaint with our boss.
- I’ll probably get fired.
- I won’t be able to afford my mortgage and I’ll have to move back in with my parents.
- Etc, etc, etc…
But however automatic worrying feels, it is something you can control—it’s a mental behavior that you can—with practice—learn to become more aware of and exert more control over.
And doing so is key to overcoming the habit of chronic worry for one simple reason…
When you respond to a worry with more worrying, you reinforce it and make future worries more likely.
A worry is like a toddler throwing a tantrum: You can’t control whether the tantrum happens, but how you respond to it matters a lot for how frequently tantrums occur in the future…
- Give in and you’re reinforcing the tantrum behavior, teaching the toddler that throwing tantrums gets them what they want.
- Ride it out and the toddler learns that tantruming doesn’t work and fewer tantrums happen in the future.
It’s the same with worry…
Instead of “giving in” to worry with more worrying, you need to accept the initial worry as inevitable and okay, and then put your effort and energy into not continuing to worry.
Accept the worry, control the worrying.
To do this, remind yourself that worry is inevitable, not dangerous, and it’s okay despite feeling uncomfortable—then refocusing your attention onto something more productive.
Do not use your energy to worry. Use your energy to believe, to create, to learn, to think and to grow. — Richard Feynman
2. Validate the anxiety behind your worry
We talked earlier about how one of the worst parts of chronic worry is that it leads to chronic anxiety.
But guess what… t goes both ways!
Just like worry causes anxiety, anxiety can be a trigger for worrying, which then leads to more anxiety, which then triggers more worry, and round and round you go until you’re an anxious worried mess.
The way to break this vicious cycle is to understand that worry is actually doing a job.
That sounds strange, so let me explain…
Many people get into the habit of using worry as a way to cope with their anxiety.
Think about it like this:
- When you get hit by a sudden burst of anxiety, all you want is to feel less anxious NOW
- And one way to distract yourself from how anxious you feel is to start thinking—to get out of your body (and how uncomfortable it feels) and into your head.
- Specifically, a lot of people learn from a young age to use worry as a distraction from anxiety because it feels productive.
- In fact, worry and problem-solving are almost identical mental behaviors… In both cases, you’re thinking negative thoughts about potential dangers in the future. The only difference is that problem-solving actually helps and worry doesn’t.
- But the point is it’s easy to rationalize using worry as a way to distract from anxiety because it feels productive, even though it’s not.
The problem is, like all forms of avoidance, using worry to distract from anxiety only makes your anxiety stronger in the long run because it teaches your brain to fear anxiety itself.
(When your brain sees you running away from something, it assumes it’s dangerous)
And when you have a brain that’s been taught for years and years that anxiety is bad, it’s going to get very anxious about anxiety, which—ironically—makes you WAY more anxious than you need to be.
To escape this nasty cycle, you need to stop using worry as a coping strategy for anxiety, and instead, practice validating your anxiety instead.
Validating my anxiety… what does that mean?
Validating your anxiety means briefly reminding yourself that just because anxiety feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad—or that you’re bad for feeling it.
When you do this—validate your anxiety without trying to make it go away—you teach your brain that anxiety isn’t dangerous. As a result, in the long run, you’ll have way less anxiety about anxiety. Which—back to chronic worry—means you won’t “need” worry as a coping skill and will end up doing a lot less of it.
The better you get at validating your anxiety, the less you’ll need worry as a way to avoid it.
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” — Swedish Proverb
3. Set boundaries with your worries
Worries are like difficult people in your life—the more you engage with them, the more emboldened they become to pester and bother you.
And it turns out, seeing worries as difficult people is a really useful metaphor because is suggests a great strategy for dealing with them: Boundaries.
Think about it like this:
- Let’s say you had an obnoxious coworker who kept “popping in” to your office and bothering you.
- Well, if every time they pop in you get into a big conversation with them—even if it’s a conversation about them not bothering you so much!—you’re giving them attention.
- And that attention only reinforces the very behavior you’re trying to get rid of.
- Let’s say you have some obnoxious worries that keep “popping in” to your mind and bothering you.
- Well, if every time they pop in you get into a big conversation with them—even if it’s about them not bothering you so much!—you’re giving those worries attention.
- And the more attention you give your worries, the more frequent they become.
So, just like you would with difficult people, if you want to stop difficult thoughts like chronic worries, you need to get better at setting good boundaries with them.
What does that mean, though… setting boundaries with worries?
Remember earlier, we talked about the distinction between a worry (which you can’t control) and the act of worrying which, however difficult, is a mental behavior you can learn to control and ultimately stop…
Well, when you respond to a worry with more worrying you’re essentially allowing yourself to get sucked into a conversation with the initial worry, and as a result, reinforcing it.
And while a worry showing up is not a choice, having a conversation with it is.
Think about it like this:
Just because a worry talks doesn’t mean you have to talk back.
If you want worries to stop showing up so much you need to stop having conversations with them. Which means you have to be willing to briefly acknowledge them but then control your attention and focus it somewhere else.
Just like you might tell an obnoxious coworker “I’m not having a this conversation right now” and then refocus on writing up that report you were working on, you can literally tell your worries “I’m not getting into a conversation with you right now” and then refocus on whatever the task at hand is.
Is it easy? No.
You’ve been indulging your worries for a long time so setting boundaries with might feel pretty uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself: Wait a second… Isn’t this basically what you said in the previous point about accepting the worry and controlling the worry?
At the end of the day, there’s no magic trick that’s gonna make your worries disappear.
Like any major change, it takes a commitment to consistently doing things differently and building better habits. And the most important habit is to be able to control your attention in the face of worry and stop engaging in unnecessary worrying.
For some people, the frame of accepting the worry and controlling the worrying is a helpful way of looking at it. But for others, it makes more sense to personify the worry as a person and think in terms of setting better boundaries.
Both are just two different ways of helping you address the same core tasks which is to get better at disengaging from your worries and letting them go.
Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create. — Roy T. Bennett
4. Schedule time to worry on purpose
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself: Okay, I like the idea of setting better boundaries with my worry. But it’s still really hard in the moment…
Well, you’re in luck because I’ve got a very practical exercise you can use that will make it much easier to set better boundaries with your worry.
It’s called Scheduled Worry.
The basic idea is that instead of worrying in your head you do your worrying on paper at a fixed time.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Pick a scheduled worry time. Aim for a window of time that will work every day of the week. For example: Every evening at 7:50, after I put the kids down but before I watch TV. Consistency is key, so choose a time you’re confident you can stick to most days.
- Set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Having a timer is important because you want to focus on your worry during your worry time, not how much time you do or don’t have left.
- Write your worries down on paper. Just start listing any and every worry you can think of. Doesn’t matter if it’s forgetting bananas at the grocery store or nuclear war. Importantly, don’t try to solve your worries—just list them and move on.
- Enforce good boundaries with your worry. During your scheduled worry time, worry hard! When your time is up, stop immediately and get back to your day. If you find yourself worrying throughout the day, remind yourself that you have a time for worry and will do it then, not now. From now on, you worry on paper, not in your head!
But why would I make time to worry on purpose? I worry enough as it is!
I admit, it’s pretty counterintuitive. But there’s a bunch of really good psychology behind it.
Here’s how it works:
- Scheduled worry is a mental exercise that trains your brain to worry at a specific time, and by extension, not at other times.
- Think about how you potty train a new puppy… When little Fido pees on the kitchen floor, you can’t just yell at him or explain logically why he should stop. Instead, you need to train the puppy that there’s a right place to do its business by rewarding it for peeing there. As a result, it will increasingly use only that spot and not all the other places around your house.
- Similarly, if you want your brain to stop bombarding you with worries throughout the day, you can’t just yell at yourself to stop worrying or try to convince it logically. You need to train it to worry at the right time—this is why we scheduled time to worry on purpose, giving it our full attention, which is rewarding.
- Over time, you will find yourself worrying a lot less at other points throughout the day because your brain is learning to worry at the right time—and by extension, not at the wrong times.
The key thing to realize here is that scheduled worry isn’t about the content of your worries—you’re not trying to solve any one particular worry. You’re just giving them attention during a specific time so that you can reinforce them for worrying then, and by extension, not bug you so much throughout the day.
And best of all, once you get into the habit of scheduling time to worry on purpose and do it consistently, you’ll have a much easier time saying setting boundaries with stray worries and saying no to them rather than getting sucked into unhelpful conversations with them.
Worry is a misuse of the imagination. — Dan Zadra
Want more ideas for eliminating chronic worry?
I teach an online video course called Creating Calm where I share the exact step-by-step system I’ve used to help hundreds of people end chronic worry and anxiety for good.