How to Stop Worrying…Reflections on a Life-Long Practice

This is my signature worry grimace.

This is my signature worry grimace.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a worrying problem. When I was 10, I suffered from stomachaches and nausea every morning, so my parents took me to the doctor, thinking maybe I had a tumor or an ulcer. After putting a mini camera down my throat and into my stomach, the doctor concluded there was nothing physically wrong with me—just stress. I worried too much. As a teenager, I was prescribed anti-anxiety meds, but I found the side effects worse than the worrying. I stopped taking them. When I was 21, I ended up in the emergency room because of excruciating back pain. I could barely lift myself off the couch, let alone drive or dress myself. Was I dying? Nope, it was just stress, which caused debilitating muscle spasms that ripped throughout the length of my back.

I’ve gotten a lot better since then. I found yoga. I take a daily cocktail of vitamin supplements to improve my sense of wellbeing. I’ve tried chakra balancing, Reiki, Neuro Emotional Technique, acupressure, sound therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. I’ve read countless books on philosophy, mindfulness, kindness, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, meditation and relaxation techniques. And all of these things—cumulatively, over the years—have helped. But sometimes I still catch myself in that worrying cycle: If I don’t get this job, then I’m going to run out of money, then people will think less of me, then this will happen, then THIS will happen—and before I know it, I’m stressed about something that isn’t even actually happening.

You see, worrying is sneaky. You might think it’s helping you—that perhaps you’ll be more prepared for unforeseen events if you worry and think and plan and deliberate over them. But the truth is simply this: you can’t predict the future. (And despite my best efforts, neither can I). Excessively worrying about improbable events is only robbing you of the present—and ultimately, your life.

So I like to play a game called “Where am I now.” I wish I could remember which book I picked it up from, because I certainly didn’t come up with it on my own, but I find it helps the most. Basically, it’s a way to halt my worrying cycle and focus on the present.

When I find myself getting carried away, I stop and ask, “Where am I now?” Am I worrying about the future? Am I stuck in the past? Once I acknowledge which imaginary place I’m in (because really, the past and the future don’t exist outside of our minds), I focus on where I really am at that present moment. Am I actually reclining on my couch, with the fireplace on and my dog cuddled up in my lap? Am I sitting in traffic, listening to a really good song on my iPod? Because truthfully, most of the time, my life is pretty good, and the majority of my perceived suffering is caused by my mind playing tricks on me. As Karen Salmansohn puts it, “If you want to be sad, live in the past. If you want to be anxious, live in the future. If you want to be peaceful, live in the now.” (By the way, her book Instant Happy is a great pick-me-up when you need a quick mental boost.)

Do you, too, have problems with unwarranted worrying? If so, here a few of my favorite techniques, borrowed from a mish-mash of sources (most likely, The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook and Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy). And I’m always excited to learn new ones, so feel free to share some of your favorite worry-stopping strategies.

5 Ways to Stop Worrying:

  1. Ask yourself, “Where am I now?” Is your mind time traveling to the future? Is it ruminating on the past? Focus on where you really are, in the present moment. Some schools of thought call this mindfulness; others call it being present. No matter what you call it, there’s value in it.
  2. Remind yourself that everything is temporary. Maybe you’re in a crappy place, whether it’s being unemployed, going through a divorce, having financial problems, whatever the case may be. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), life often is a succession of peaks and valleys. Sometimes the high points or low points last longer than others—sometimes things will be better, sometimes worse. Accept that you might be in a low point, but it will (eventually) come back up.
  3. Create a scale to rate emotionally loaded events. Feeling like you’re a total failure? Chances are, you probably aren’t a total failure—even if you feel that way (and even if you have actually failed at something). Just like those pain scales they have in hospitals, think of life events on a scale of 0-10 or 0-100. If nothing else, thinking about things in relative terms can help provide a sense of perspective.
  4. Change your script. Everyone has a mental script. Sometimes it’s positive, and sometimes it’s not so positive. If something bad happens, and your immediate thought is “I hate my life” or “I can’t do anything right” or “No one likes me,” that’s not helping you cope with the situation. Create something more positive and supportive to tell yourself, such as, “It would have been better if I didn’t make that mistake, but I’m still a good person” or “There’s a purpose to my life, even though I might not see it right now” or even something as simple as “My feelings make me uncomfortable right now, but I can accept them.” Can’t remember what your new, improved script is? Write it on a small flashcard and keep it in your wallet or purse, so you can refer to it until it becomes more readily accessible to you.
  5. Frame challenges as opportunities. I admit, this is especially difficult, but when something stresses me out, I try to think, “Okay, this (crappy) situation is an opportunity for me to learn how to cope with my fears.” Is it interacting with a difficult coworker? A financial problem? A relationship challenge? Yes, life is often challenging, but how you think about events in your life is an important step into handling them in the most productive way possible.

Is this the cure-all for worrying? Nope, not by a long shot. I believe mental health (well, and happiness, for that matter) is a lot like physical health—it’s a lifelong journey that you have to work at day-by-day, a little bit at a time, and hopefully as you get in better shape, it gets a little easier.

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2 thoughts on “How to Stop Worrying…Reflections on a Life-Long Practice

  1. Hi Laura, it’s Jennifer, from SF. Found your blog on WordPress, and I just wanted to say I think you’re a wonderful writer. Your writing is lucid, direct, engaging, and elegant, which is a real rarity these days. You write with real ease and honesty, and your prose flows wonderfully. You make it look easy, which is one of the hardest things to achieve in writing, and the mark of a true writer. Keep at it…you really have a gift.

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