Worrying is a tough habit to break, even though, like many other bad habits, it’s clearly not good for us. Most of what we worry about never happens, and the costs of excessive worry are considerable: unhappiness, tension, poor sleep, and irritability, to name a few.
So, what makes us worry so much when the downsides are so clear?
Why We Worry
Consciously or not, we often believe that worrying is the right thing to do. As I describe in my forthcoming book Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, we think worrying:
- Motivates us
- Helps us solve problems
- Protects us from bad surprises
- Demonstrates that we care
- Makes things turn out better
For the most part, these beliefs aren’t true. For example, problem solving is productive and goal-directed, but worrying is unproductive, wheel-spinning.
Even if we recognize that worrying makes no sense, it’s hard to stop. We don’t like living with uncertainty when faced with a frightening possibility, like getting sick or losing someone we care about. And so we try to exercise some control over the situation, imagining every “what if” scenario and how we might handle it. This mental activity gives us the feeling that we’re doing something, not just accepting whatever comes.
What’s more, every time we worry and things turn out OK, we strengthen the worry habit. Our minds come to associate worry with preventing harm, as if the worry was somehow useful. This reinforcement makes us more likely to worry in the future.
How Can I Worry Less?
Given the many ways that worrying can be self-perpetuating, we need multiple tools to help us worry less. My top five include:
1. Notice when you’re worrying. We often worry without realizing that we’re doing it. When we become aware of the worry process, we have more choice in whether we continue it.
2. Soothe your nervous system. When we quiet the mind and body, we’re more likely to find a sense of ease. You might try exercise, guided muscle relaxation, or meditation (like this one-minute exercise you can do anywhere).
3. Live in the moment. Worry is about the future, so training the attention to rest in the present is a powerful way to reduce worry. We can focus our attention on everyday activities like talking to a friend or eating, as well as doing more formal practices like meditation and yoga.
4. Face your fears. Rather than worrying, we can practice deliberately accepting that what we’re afraid of could happen. At first it will probably feel frightening, but with repeated practice we can confront our fears with greater equanimity.
5. Embrace uncertainty. The things we care about most are fundamentally uncertain: being healthy, marrying well, succeeding in life. Rather than simply tolerating the unknown, we can embrace it as part of what it means to be alive.
One of the most common end-of-life realizations is that we worried far more than we needed to. Eliminating all our worries would be an unrealistic goal, but with practice, we can redirect our minds in ways that serve us better.
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.