For better or worse, we’ve inherited a worrying brain. This was really good news for our ancestors who had to survive harsh conditions and constant predators, and did so by being able to pay close attention to potential threats and dangers. But this is not so helpful for us modern humans though, who can find ourselves pulled into future “what if” thoughts that can fill many an hour of our waking lives.
In my previous blog, (How Worry Takes Us Away From Our Lives) I suggested some ways that we might work with minor worries and mental ruminations. In this blog I would like to elaborate on that, and offer some suggestions for what to do when we are feeling particularly stuck in intense worry feelings. I find for myself that I experience this most when I am worried about the well-being and health of a family member, am sitting with uncertainty, or waiting on some resolution of a problem over which I have little control. Each of us has our own worry triggers, but the grip of worry is something we commonly experience as human beings. Here are some things that you can try when you are gripped by worry:
1. Be aware of where your mind is traveling. Often our minds travel to far away places down dark roads, without us being fully aware. For example, it is not uncommon for parents to experience a behavior crisis with their young child and have thoughts such as “if he/she is behaving this way now, how are they possibly going to get through high school and function in life?” Before they know it, they are ten years into the future, which is a helpless feeling because we can’t do anything about something that hasn’t happened (and often won’t). It is common for our mind to jump way into the future and have these kinds of worse case scenario thoughts run away like a train on the loose. When this happens, recognizing we are ten steps into the future can remind us to bring our thinking back to right now.
Ask: “What is happening today, and is there anything helpful I can do about it right now?” Look for places where you have control. Maybe there is a small action step that you can take. For example, someone worried about their financial future might identify what they can do now, such as set up a weekly budget, or make an appointment to meet with a financial advisor, or see if there are unneeded items in the house they might sell for a bit of immediate cash. Know that you may not be able to control your initial worst-case scenario thoughts, but you can choose to keep bringing your mind back to today when it wanders away to unhelpful places, and focus on small action steps you can control, even if that is simply taking care of yourself.
2. If a worry is particular consuming, choose an activity that you can engage in mindfully, something that will allow you to put the focus of your attention on the task at hand. For me, folding laundry, cleaning my house, and going for a run help to step me out of feeling immobilized by my own thoughts and feelings when they are very intense. For some people it might be knitting or gardening or doing a puzzle. Something that involves the body in motion or a mental activity can be helpful to bring our attention to the present moment and task in front of us. Often when people talk about this they say “I distracted myself by doing X.” But I like to flip that kind of thinking around. Our ruminating thoughts are the distraction, pulling us away from what is actually happening. When we focus our full attention on an activity in this moment, we step back into our lives (and can often dial down the ruminating part of our brain).
3. Identify the inner and outer resources you have to meet potential challenges. For example, if you are worried about a medical issue, outer resources to focus on might include the skilled doctors and nurses that you have on your team to help you, books that offer you information about how best to take care of yourself, or the neighbors next door who are willing to watch your kids if you have doctors’ appointments. Inner resources might include your ability to carefully weigh information and not make impulsive decisions; motivation to take care of your body in any ways you can, or courage that you know is there because of others challenges you have faced in your life. Bring your attention to all of the resources you can think of that are there for you to draw on. Know that they are with you as a source of strength.
4. Call up genuine, positive emotions. As much as we may be gripped by fear, anxiety and worry, we often still have the capacity during these times to experience emotions such as care, love, appreciation or gratitude. When we focus on these, it can help to ease our pain and suffering. For example, when I was with my daughter for a medical procedure and was grappling with my worrying mind, it helped me to focus on the kindness and care of the nurses and doctors, and to send feelings of care and concern to other parents who were with their children in the hospital. Once you identify a genuine positive emotion (don’t come up with something that doesn’t feel true for you), it can be helpful to magnify it and dwell in the felt sense of this feeling in your body. It isn’t about pushing away difficult emotions that may be present, but about calling up positive emotions that you might otherwise overlook in the face of intense worries, that could help to nourish you. Dwelling in the love and care of those around you can be especially helpful during challenging times.
5. Practice self-compassion. While it is useful to stop or redirect spiraling, unhelpful, future-based thoughts, it is important that we don’t discount our own emotions by pushing them away, telling ourselves we are silly to feel this way, or berating ourselves for having our feelings. Instead, we can acknowledge that what we are experiencing is difficult. We can offer compassion and comfort to ourselves the way we might do to a friend going through a similar situation. We can picture a wise, loving self holding or being with the younger, scared parts of ourselves. I find this especially helpful in the middle of the night when my worries can feel most intense. Letting ourselves know we are on own side can go a long way.
6. Don’t hold your worries alone. Reach out for support and engage in social connection with others. This worrying mind is part of our shared common humanity, and we all go through situations that are scary or difficult. Knowing that you are not alone, and allowing others to support you, can help to bring ease to angst and suffering. Too often people feel that they don’t want to “burden others.” Sometimes others can offer us perspective and the ability to see a larger picture. Sometimes others can simply be with us for support. Some people in our lives might be best at problem-solving and helping us take actions. Think about what you might most need from others, and who in your life might best fill that need. Then don’t be shy about reaching out. Ask yourself: “If this other person were going through what I am, would I want them to reach out to me so I could be there for them?” We are all here for each other and knowing that we do not need to bear our difficulties alone can help to bring ease to even our biggest worries.