Worrying can feel like a way to cover our bases, to find answers, to be responsible, or to keep that plane in the air. In reality, it’s wasted energy. If something bad does happen, worry didn’t stop it. If it doesn’t happen, worry only sucked any potential joy from the moment.
Even when we realize that our worries are pointless—and quite often irrational—it’s not so easy to turn them off. But it’s important that we try. Worry can release stress hormones that trigger health issues, such as digestive and cardiac disorders, and it can lead to depression. It can also be a trigger for substance abuse; after all, drinks and pills seem to promise a quick way to blot worry from our minds, at least for the moment.
The next time you feel that sickening knot building inside you, try these strategies for flipping the worry switch to “off":
1. Live in the now.
Our lives feel as though they take a linear path, but in reality, everything that has ever happened to us or will happen to us occurs now. Appreciating that all we have is this moment can help us realize the pointlessness of worry, with its projection into a future that may never be.
2. Don’t try to brace yourself for the bad stuff.
Bad things will come in life. Worrying about them won’t stop them or better prepare you for them; it will simply exhaust you. Rather than using your energy to anticipate problems, save it to deal with them when, and if, they come.
3. Give yourself permission not to worry.
Worry can feel like a responsibility — it can even seem like the sign of a compassionate person. After all, good parents worry about their kids, hard workers worry about their jobs, involved citizens worry about the environment, and so on, right? They may well do so, but it doesn’t do much good. Caring, however, along with positive action, does.
4. Give yourself permission to worry.
If you can’t shake your worry, give yourself permission not to fight it. Instead, try to contain it; set aside a few minutes to worry about the issue each day. You may find that time or circumstances eventually make your worry moot. At the very least, you may be able to minimize the impact on your life.
5. Think positive.
Much has been written about the power of positive thinking to make us healthier and happier. Try it the next time the “what ifs” start to pile up. For example, instead of thinking, “What if I mess up this presentation?” tell yourself, “I’m going to do great.” You’re much more likely to do well with a positive mindset. Surrounding yourself with positive people also helps — worry can be contagious.
6. Be aware of distorted thinking.
Is your worry based on a legitimate concern, or has it taken on a life of its own? Worry can have an almost superstitious quality, as though by worrying about something, we are making it less likely to happen. We may even worry about the good times, convinced that they will turn bad. The next time you find yourself worrying, ask yourself what is really worrying you, what would happen if you stop, and what you are accomplishing by continuing to worry.
7. Analyze your worry history.
Think back to times when you were worried. Did what you feared come to pass? And if so, were you able to handle it? Did your worry help in any way? Do those past worries now seem inconsequential? A realistic assessment will probably show you that not only do worries get easily overblown, you are more capable than you think of dealing with problems that come your way.
8. Let go of control.
When things are out of your control, it’s healthy to embrace a little fatalism. There’s not much we can do, for example, when taking a cruise other than picking a reputable company and making sure we know where the lifeboat station is. At some point, we simply have to hand off control if we want to be able to enjoy the experience — and our lives.
9. Embrace imperfection.
Strive for quality and the peace that it brings, but recognize that just like everyone else, you are going to mess up sometimes. You will not please everyone. You are going to have failures. That’s life. It’s messy. Realizing this can make worry seem much less necessary.
10. Let it out.
When worries are shared, they have much less chance to take hold and grow. Talk to a trusted friend or relative, or seek help from a professional therapist. The simple act of opening up to someone can sometimes be all you need to regain your peace of mind.
David Sack, M.D., is a triple board-certified psychiatrist and addiction specialist who serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction and mental health centers that includes Malibu Vista women’s mental health program, Promises Treatment Centers in Southern California, The Recovery Place, and Lucida Treatment Center in Florida.