A colleague of mine who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders has a small poster in his office that reads “I’m not anxious today and that’s making me nervous.” If you just chuckled, that is probably because you know exactly how common this experience is for those of us who feel anxiety as a daily occurrence. Worry is a constant companion and triggers are everywhere, causing our brains to jump from one worry to another in a never-ending domino effect.
But what if I told you that, while these worries are conscious and can be identified and verbalized, the way that your unconscious brain works can contribute to ongoing rumination? Conversely, there are things that you can do to “hack” your unconscious mind and help yourself worry less and more effectively. A simple two-step process, if practiced regularly and with some dedication, can do wonders to help you quiet your worry thoughts.
Step 1: Schedule your worry
Literally, schedule in your calendar when you will think and problem-solve about a particular anxiety-provoking issue. Worry thoughts can be relentless, but they are not senseless. We (mostly) worry about things which can objectively harm us or those we love, or change life as we know it. In that sense, we often tell ourselves things like: “If I don’t worry about it, how will I be prepared.” Unconsciously, this is important because not worrying seems to arouse even more distress than the worry itself. As if when we cannot control the outer world, our worry feels like enforcing some semblance of control.
In addition, unconsciously, our brains have evolved to automatically direct attention to emotional stimuli much faster than to neutral or information-carrying stimuli. What’s more, the more intense and negative the emotion, the more likely our mind is to turn its laser focus on it. Consequently, hearing “Don’t worry about this!” can feel even more daunting than ruminatively organizing and reorganizing anxious thoughts in our minds, or making plans for events that may never take place. Hearing “Don’t worry” or “Don’t think about it” feels to the unconscious brain as if we are being told to ignore a very powerful emotional stimulus, which we simply cannot peel our mind away from (the same way we cannot peel our eyes away from a car crash on the side of the road). A much better alternative is to adopt the approach of scheduling worry.
When you schedule your worry—meaning, instead of telling yourself to stop worrying or admonishing yourself for experiencing anxiety, actually picking a day and time to think about the particular issue—you are not dismissing the emotional load that you are experiencing. Rather, you are validating yourself that a particular issue may indeed be scary or unknown, you are also acknowledging that it is important to you. But rather than drowning in what-ifs, you are consciously scheduling to stop and pay attention to it at a later time.
Think about this scenario: You are driving/commuting home from work. You have a list in your head of tasks and chores you need to accomplish when you return home, but the reality is that you cannot begin working on any of them until you arrive. So you remind yourself that you will be home in 45 minutes and then deal with the list. Similarly, scheduling your worry allows you to experience relief from assuming some control, while also not delegating those worries to some unknown future time. It creates predictability, thus enhancing your sense of control rather than diminishing it.
Step 2: Practice mindfulness (even if it is only for a few minutes)
Once you have decided when you will worry, try practicing a brief mindfulness exercise, such as focusing on your breathing, a quick body scan, or progressive muscle relaxation—any type of meditative practice that will anchor your mind in the here and now. What makes it so hard to detach our minds from worries is, partially, because they signal something out of place, unknown, or potentially able to cause us distress. As such, they rob us of a sense of comfort and closure. Remember how Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory has to knock three times saying Penny’s name? While his behavior is entertaining on screen, significant worry and anxiety can lead to such obsessive-compulsive behaviors or ruminative thought patterns. To borrow from Gestalt psychology’s closure principle, our minds do not like leaving unfinished business. So we play out the issue in our heads, over and over and over again.
What is more, we know from the vast research literature on the unconscious (see my book, The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications) that our minds are organized associatively, and affect (emotion) is a major unifying agent. This is why when we become worried about one thing, our minds automatically (automaticity also being a quality of unconscious processes) experiences a chain reaction of worries, one after the other. Making a mental list of tomorrow’s tasks becomes worry about an upcoming doctor’s visit, becomes a worry about COVID-19, becomes a worry about your children returning to school, becomes a worry about how your children are coping with social distancing, becomes a worry about how to throw a birthday party while keeping everyone safe in three months!
Mindfulness, on the other hand, grounds your mind in the senses, in the here and now. There is some empirical evidence to suggest that by doing so, meditation and mindfulness practices may disrupt the automatic associations that take place constantly in the mind. Studies (cf. Fabbro et al., 2017) have highlighted the importance of meditation in de-automatizing, so to speak, patterns of reacting, as well as increasing self-awareness. This is particularly useful when powerful anxious emotions are activated. Thus, mindfulness allows you to put a stop to the worry domino effect through “hacking” the normative unconscious (for more on that, see here)
3. Practice and don't give up (bonus item)
New habits take time to form. You have likely been rehearsing certain ways of thinking for a long time. The impact of unconscious processes like implicit learning and automaticity also ensure that we are not always in charge of or even aware of these patterns. Trying a new way of coping with worry thoughts requires repetition and perseverance to be successful, so do not despair if after several attempts you have not yet mastered it. In a sense, your task is to rehearse this new way of quieting worry thoughts (schedule your worry and ground yourself in the present) so much that it becomes automatized itself.
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.
Fabbro, A., Crescentini, C., Matiz, S., Clarici, A., & Fabbro, F. (2017). Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Conscious and Non-Conscious Components of the Mind. Applied Sciences, 7(4).