3 New Approaches to Worry Better
How to move out of worrying and into living.
Posted Mar 30, 2018
The human mind is an amazing apparatus.
It comes equipped with the ability to imagine, predict, and plan for the future.
And although humans have no claws or fangs, it’s this ability to anticipate and prepare for future events, that allowed us to become the dominant animal on the planet.
By constantly predicting danger—even if there was none—our ancestors were able to survive and thrive in the most threatening environments.
Nowadays, however, our environments have changed.
No longer do we need to look out for dangerous animals, and our biggest threats have been replaced by sugar, smoke, and heart-disease.
Our minds, which have evolved to predict danger around every corner, find themselves unsuited for this new environment.
We still imagine and predict danger, but to a degree that is no longer helpful.
These predictions are what we commonly call "worry."
Humans worry A LOT.
- We worry about not being smart enough
- We worry about not being attractive enough
- We worry about what other people might think
- We worry about saying something wrong
- We worry about saying something
Almost anything can become the object of our worry.
If you have ever noticed yourself worrying too much (too often, too intensely, or linked to “little” things), you might have even begun to worry about your own tendency to worry!
Human language and cognition began as a way to extend cooperation, but it ended up being used for problem solving—and that can be applied to anything. Worry can interfere with life—but your mind is just doing what it evolved to do.
Worry is the unhelpful form of your mind trying to solve the problems of the future.
Predicting? Sure, if it helps.
Worrying? No so much.
But all of these are cognitive ways of dealing with the future. Worry is the one on that list that science suggest is rarely helpful in actually dealing with future events when they become present.
So how do we stop worrying when worry itself becomes the problem? How do we stop worrying when worrying overwhelms us, and keeps us disconnected from what’s meaningful in life?
Most people try to stop worrying by using the same cognitive skills that got them into trouble in the first place.
- “If I distract myself it will go away”
- “Perhaps I can drown my worry in alcohol, smother it in junk food, or meditate it into smithereens”
- “I’ve got it—I’ll overwhelm it with the truth or contradict it by thinking more positively”
Some of this might even be helpful at times, but worries can be sticky. And when you use the same problem solving strategy to overcome the limits of problem solving, you are asking for trouble.
For instance, if I meditate to make my worries go away, in the very instant that I ask “did it work?” the answer will be “no” because that very question is a form of worry!
I call these contradictions “strange loops” and almost invariably they come from the evolutionary mismatch between ancient learning systems and human cognitive systems that are a thousand times more recent.
Strange loops form when the mind tries to do more than it is capable of doing—and the problem starts as soon as the “problem” is formulated.
If you’ve tried to stop worrying and yet you find yourself worrying again, you might suspect a strange loop. You might want to try to change your approach.
It will begin by questioning the very change you seek.
Approach #1: Stop Trying to Stop; Instead, Show Up
As soon as we aim to “stop” worrying, we begin put our own cognitive and emotional life through a filter of judgment that is supposedly going to end with something negative going away (or else!).
That very posture of “____ or else” makes us look anxiously to see if our mind has stopped its harmful action—but that is in itself the same harmful action.
A strange loop!
An alternative is to start with an attitude of dispassionate curiosity toward worry.
What if we tried to learn about worry and what it means about our history and our caring, instead of trying to eliminate worry.
We can look at worry from different angles:
- “Where do I feel it in my body?”
- “How old is this feeling?”
- “What does it remind me of?”
- “When does it rise or fall?”
We don’t need to stop our worrying. Instead, we can allow ourselves to make more intimate contact with our fears and the pull to avoid them.
We can allow ourselves to feel our worry, and explore it, its place in our mind without getting entangled by it. We can meet our worries with a sense of watchful curiosity.
Approach #2: Self-Compassion and Acceptance
When we worry about small or “unreasonable” things, we might be tempted to beat ourselves up.
Beating yourself up, however, is not very helpful. Instead, you might want to meet your worry with more openness and compassion.
- “How vulnerable do I feel when I notice this worry?”
- “How old was I when first felt this way?”
- “What would I do if a child of that age was afraid?”
- “Could I bring self-kindness to myself as I notice a worry?”
- “Do I judge it, or me? Do I push it or me away? Must I?”
We don’t need to demonize our overly cautious mind. Instead we can acknowledge, accept it, and make room for self-compassion.
You might even assign yourself some worry time and carefully and kindly watch yourself worry.
Approach #3: Willingness and Values
Worry and fear are not important in themselves. What is important, however, is your life, and everything in it that makes it rich and meaningful.
When you find yourself worrying yet again, you might want to consider what’s truly important here:
- “Would I be willing to feel this fear without defense AND still function?”
- “Am I willing to expand into areas I worry about - to move out of my safety zone on purpose?”
- “What does this worry suggest I deeply care about?”
- “Would I be willing to listen to its old messages while moving towards my goals and values?
All of the skills from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy apply.
You can make room for difficult feelings.
You can defuse from difficult thoughts.
You can get in contact with your present experience.
You can maintain a distinction between the part of you observing and what you observe.
You can connect with your values.
And you can commit yourself to goals.
Let worry teach you something—about what you care about and where you hurt. About your history and your current circumstances.
Instead of trying to stop worry, step back, notice, learn, and move on.
That gives a long list of new things to do with worry other than problem solving or making it stop: description, observation, curiosity, presence, acceptance, self-compassion, willingness, persistence, self-validation, and learning… that is an agenda we can mount.
Waiting for worrying to work, or to control the future, or to become rational, or to go away is not an agenda we can mount.
Don’t believe me… believe your own experience.
So, which agenda do you choose?