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4 Habits of Chronic Worriers and 1 Surprising Solution

"Don't worry. Be happy," Bobby McFerrin famously sang. Here's how.

Key points

  • Worrying generates and perpetuates anxiety.
  • Four cognitive habits tend to provoke an increase in worrying. Fortunately, each of these habits has an antidote.
  • When worrying is replaced by problem-solving, anxiety calms down.
"Oh no!"
Source: Nandyphotos/fotosearch

Bobby McFerrin's famous song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is delightful to sing, yet offers advice that may be hard to follow. This article clarifies what may keep you from implementing McFerrin's idea, and also what can help.

What Is Worrying?

When the wheels on a car turn, they should move the car forward. If instead the wheels get mired in mud or snow, they may begin spinning in place. The car then stands still. Similarly, worrying gets you stuck in mental wheel-spinning.

Worrying stimulates anxiety. It consumes time, energy, and morale. It blocks effective thinking. It also can be off-putting in relationships because when people worry they become emotionally brittle—quick to anger and less able to enjoy their lives and their loved ones.

What Do You Notice in this Example of Worrying?

Dusty, a writer, had been told that a new café some distance from his house could be a fun place for him to do his writing. As someone who likes writing with a warm mug of coffee in front of him, Dusty decided to give it a try. He took a bus to the new café and went inside. At first glance, the café looked lovely with giant windows, bright white paint, and fun artwork on all the walls.

Dusty chose a table, sat down, and pulled out his computer to start writing. Soon, though, the noisiness of the high-ceiling, cement-walled echo-chamber-like room began to bother him. As the café became increasingly crowded, the noise and commotion proved too distracting for him to concentrate.

Instead of focusing on the article he was trying to write, Dusty's mind started spinning with the thought, "This isn't a good place for me to work!"

Dusty's mind soon started spinning with an additional worry. Would he be able to complete his article by the deadline his editor had set? His worry then expanded: "What if I lose my job?!"

What Habits Perpetuate Worrying?

The following four habits can keep anxious thoughts spinning.

1. Agitating instead of thinking

Dusty thought to himself,

I don't like trying to write in this cafe.

But I spent all that time traveling here.

But it's not working for me.

But what would my friend think who told me about this place?!

What word signified that Dusty's inner dialogue would continue to agitate him? If you guessed the culprit was but, you guessed right. But deletes whatever came before, so there's no forward movement in Dusty's thinking. His thoughts are just spinning.

Antidote: Replace your buts with ands or, better yet, at the same time. It's amazing how your mind then will switch from agitation mode to forward-moving thinking.

2. Guessing others' thoughts and feelings, and assuming that they will be negative

Dusty worried:

What will my friend who told me about this place think if I don't like it? He's going to feel that I'm critical of him, and then he could get annoyed at me.

Believing that he can know what his friend will think, Dusty assumes that the friend will think negatively of him. Needless to say, this thought generates further anxious feelings.

Antidote: Instead of guessing others' reactions, ask. Dusty could phone his friend, tell him his dilemma, and ask his friend's opinion. Or Dusty could figure out for himself what to do and assume that his friend will be fine with his decision. Assuming the best goes hand in hand with assuming that if the friend has a negative reaction, they can talk about it, clear the air, and then continue on with their friendship.

3. What if's—that is, leaping ahead to worst-case scenarios

Dusty's thoughts continued:

If my friend gets mad at me, I could lose that friendship! I feel so vulnerable, being new in a town where I know so few people.

One worry then easily can lead to the next:

Oh no! If I don't get my work done today, my editor will be angry. I could lose my job. How will I pay my rent? And if I lose my apartment, where would I live!

Antidote: Instead of generating worst-case scenarios for the future, stay focused on finding a solution to the current dilemma.

4. Assuming that anxiety is a red light.

Anger is a red light. It is best as soon as you feel angry to stop interacting. Anxiety, by contrast, is a yellow light.

Antidote: A yellow light tells you to slow down, look around, and problem-solve as you proceed with caution. Slowing down enables you to gather information about potential dangers—and proceeding keeps you moving forward toward a solution.

What Can Decrease and Even Bring an End to Worry Habits?

My book Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More offers good news: Anxiety, which is the emotion that worrying generates, generally has a relatively easy antidote. That antidote is problem-solving.

Problem-solving involves (1) defining your dilemma, (2) listing your concerns, (3) information-gathering, and then (4) creating a plan of action.

Here's Dusty's thinking process when he chooses problem-solving instead of worrying:

I'm under time pressure now to finish my article before my deadline, so I want to find a nearby quieter café. I do want to please my friend, so I will express with appreciation how charming this one is. And at the same time, I can explain that after enjoying a brief stay here, I had to move to a quieter place to be able to concentrate. He'll understand.

Because a key step in problem-solving often follows the saying, "The best antidote to anxiety is information," Dusty then searched on his phone for "cafés near me."

Thus, problem-solving proves to be the winning solution. Clarify your goal, list your concerns, and create a plan of action. Don't worry; be happy!

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