Letting Go of Worry

How to interrogate your brain to release your worries

Posted Mar 19, 2011

Lately, the topic of conversations I have seem to gravitate to discussing if the economy is ever going to rebound, speculating what disasters will next hit and debating when the sky will surely fall. So why do we worry so much more than spend time being grateful for what we have? Worrying is a core human function.

The primary purpose the brain exists is to keep you alive and safe. First, it is always working to keep your body functioning. Second, it is always on the alert to keep you from being harmed.

Therefore, the brain can skew our thoughts toward pessimism and worrying about the worst that can happen. Shifting to optimism and possibilities takes conscious effort for most people.

The reason why worrying is more often pinned on women is that they tend to verbalize what they are thinking about more often than men. They feel better when they talk about their worries with others. Men tend to keep quiet about their concerns and lie awake at night thinking about solutions. Yet internalizing worries can lead them to displacing anxieties, becoming angry or irritated with people for unrelated actions instead of admitting you are worried about something.¹ Neither incessantly talking about worries or hiding them is healthy.

Whether you talk about your worries or keep them to yourself, it is better to take time to explore the source of your angst instead of brooding over possible outcomes or ruminating on fixes.

#1: IDENTIFY EXACTLY WHAT YOUR BRAIN IS PROTECTING YOU FROM. Thank your brain for protecting you, and then ask yourself these questions:

  • What is at stake, really? How likely will I lose this? What can harm me? Is it true?
  • What is in my control and power to influence at the moment? Can I focus on what I can control and think less about what I have no control to change?
  • If I can take action, what are the consequences of taking a risk, really? If I make the phone call, have the conversation, change my job, or just back off and let thing be, what is the worst that can happen? How likely is the worse to happen, really? What is most likely to happen? Is it possible that this change could lead to something good?

With awareness and practice, you can distinguish what is a real threat from when your brain is being overprotective.

#2: BE SOFTER ON YOURSELF. First, forgive yourself for worrying. Everyone worries in their own way. Relax. Find gentler ways to talk to yourself. Trust that things will work out, because they often do. Ask yourself, "What would I do differently if I knew the solution would appear with ease and grace?" When I ask myself this question, the grip my worrying had on my brain seems to fade away.

Remember this: When your brain is in a more relaxed state, it is easier to see new solutions and possibilities.² 

Worrying is an alarm for you to explore the possibilities of danger in a situation. Take time to explore the reality of what could happen and what is in your power to do about it so you can move on to more positive thoughts about the future.

Do you have any suggestions to share about letting go of worry?


¹ A good source of gender research is The Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology edited by Joan C. Chrisler and Donald R. McCreary (Springer Science+Business Media, 2010).

² A classic book on the effects of stress on our minds and bodies is Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An updated guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping by Dr. Robert Sapolsky (latest version: Holt Paperbacks, 2004).

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, coach and author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, teaches classes worldwide on emotional intelligence and leadership. You can read more about Dr. Reynolds at www.outsmartyourbrain.com