How to Stop Worrying When Your Thoughts Won’t Cooperate

Feelings, not thoughts, may be key to unlocking the worry response

Posted Apr 04, 2017

Chalabala / AdobeStock
Source: Chalabala / AdobeStock

There was a time when everybody “knew” the world was flat. If you sailed too far in any direction, you’d fall off the edge of the earth.

For a long time there was no controversy. Everybody “knew” the same thing, so there was no need to argue about it.

Eventually, evidence that the earth wasn’t flat started to accumulate. But the data only led to controversy. Societies don’t change their thinking in an instant. We fight for the status quo.

Gradually, more and more people came to accept that the earth wasn’t flat. Today, everyone agrees about the shape of the world again.

We have other controversies today, thousands of them from climate change to the etiology of psychopathology. These are truths seeking consensus.

Controversy hasn’t begun in all the places it eventually will, because we still think "everybody knows" certain things that aren't actually true. I’m thinking of one in particular.

Thoughts & Feelings

Something everybody “knows” today is that the thoughts we think give rise to the feelings we feel. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” goes this axiom according to Shakespeare.

It seems to be true.

If, after giving a presentation, you believe, ‘That was awful! Everybody must think I’m such an idiot,’ then that thought will cause you to feel embarrassed, regretful, and perhaps desperate to move to Finland and leave it all behind.

If you think the presentation went well, you’ll feel differently. Pride and relief are more likely to bloom in your brain than shame and despair.

Thoughts do cause feelings. But that’s only half the story. The other half is barely on the radar yet.

Here’s a bit of controversy that’s also potentially good news: Feelings give rise to thoughts as readily as the other way around.

If we accept the idea that feelings and thoughts can create each other

If we reject the notion that choosing different thoughts is the only (or even the most effective) way to change how we feel…

then we can make use of a better tool for managing garden-variety worry and mental distraction.

A Better Way to Combat Worry

Worry – going over and over something in your mind, playing back an unpleasant event or anticipating one – arises from emotional reactions to the world that we haven’t consciously processed.

These create mental activity in the form of thoughts, which are then blamed for causing the feelings.

What is worry? It’s the brain using thinking to solve the problem of feeling.

We feel bad about something; it bothers us. Thoughts loop repeatedly around the issue, seeking a different angle that’s not so bothersome. It’s the brain's attempt to soothe our riled emotions.  

Shame and dread in particular trigger thought-loops.

Most of us try to stop thought-loops by choosing different thoughts. That’s like trying to break up a dog fight by adding more dogs. We discover it doesn’t work, and become powerless.

Since worry is fueled not by thoughts but by unprocessed emotions, the fastest and surest way to stop worrying is to process your feelings about the thing you’re worrying about. 

Yes, your thoughts are running away with you. But what's causing them to do so? Look no further than your agitated feelings.

How do you process those feelings instead of letting them whip up a batch of uncontrolled thoughts? Start by naming them, and willingly experience them. You may need to do so more than once for very troubling situations.

Use the T-R-U-T-H Technique outlined in my book, Constructive Wallowing:

T = Tell yourself the situation.

R = Realize what you’re feeling

U = Uncover self-criticism

T = Try to understand yourself

H = Have the feeling

The mental static of worry will disintegrate as soon as you get in touch with the feelings that are causing it. Try it and see.

For more discussion, see my post about rumination.