We all worry from time-to-time. Worries and anxieties – here and there – are a natural part of life. But when these worries become obsessive or begin interfering with our everyday life, they can end up causing us a lot of unnecessary stress, and hold us back from living life to our full potential.
The worst thing about worrying is that many of us end up wasting time and energy worrying over things that are unlikely to happen – or that we have no control over.
When we’re worried or anxious, these types of feelings tend to be preceded by negative thoughts – thoughts we might be completely unaware of at a conscious level. It’s believed we have up to 60,000 thoughts a day, so it’s easy to see how a few of those might go missed…
Thoughts – and their patterns – can become so habitual that we don’t even notice them happening. The problem is we can end up taking a lot of them at face value, not taking the time to question whether they’re real or not. Just because a thought feels or sounds true, doesn’t mean that it is.
When it comes to worrying, it’s important to be able to distinguish between what, in psychology, we call “real event” worries and “hypothetical event” worries.
A real event worry is a concern that is current, and has the potential to be solved. An example of a real event worry might be worrying after having left the house without making up with your partner, following a big argument the night before. This is a genuine concern that’s impacting you right now, and there are possible solutions. You might, for example, choose to call your partner from work to apologise or try to find a resolution between you both.
A hypothetical worry, on the other hand, is something different. Hypothetical worries tend to begin with the words, “what if”. In psychology, we sometimes refer to this as “catastrophizing”.
Perhaps some of the following phrases sound familiar to you:
“What if everyone hates me?”
“What if I fail?”
“What if I say the wrong thing and everyone thinks I’m an idiot?”
“What if I never meet anyone?”
When we catastrophize, we adopt a pessimistic outlook that’s out of balance with reality, immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Catatrophizing is dangerous because – unchecked – it can heavily impact our mood, and hold us back from realising our full potential.
How to stop worrying and start living life
The first step to stop worrying about something is to clearly identify what you’re worrying about. This might sound silly and obvious, but excessive worrying can sometimes feel so panicked and spiralling that we lose sight of what kicked it all off.
Try to pinpoint – specifically – what the overriding worry is. If you’re not sure, the first step is to start becoming aware of your thoughts.
The more we start watching our thoughts, the better the chance we give ourselves of spotting the unhelpful (or untrue) ones. When you find yourself in a worry loop, try writing your worries down – either on your phone or on a notebook. And start to take note of what you were doing when the thoughts came up. Where were you? What happened?
You may start to notice patterns to your worries – either regarding the content of your worries (the same thing coming up, over and over again) or perhaps how they get triggered (being around a particular person/being at work, for instance).
Next, consider whether your worry is a real concern or a hypothetical one. Start looking for the facts. Is there any evidence for what you’re worrying about actually happening? And is there any evidence that could point to it not happening? Does this worry start with the words, “what if”?
If you think you might be catastrophizing, take a step back from the situation. Consider what you’d say to a friend who was worrying about something similar. Would you say something to reassure them? What tone would you use to comfort them? Then take the same approach;
Once you’ve realised that the worry is exaggerated, consider how you could reframe it. What would be a more helpful response to this situation you’re worrying about? Instead of thinking about the worst case scenario, consider what the best possible outcome could be. So, for example, switch “What if I fail?” to “What if… it goes well?
If you come to the conclusion that your worry is a real worry – something that has the potential to be rectified – it’s time to put your problem-solving hat on. Brainstorm all the possible ways you can think of to solve this problem. Remember, your solution doesn’t have to be perfect to move you forward so don’t beat yourself up over getting it “just right”. If it’s something you can take action on right now, that’s great. If not, commit to putting the worry to the side for the time-being and come back to it when you have the time to take an actionable step.
Hopefully these steps can help you stop your worrying in its tracks, and give you just enough time to choose whether worrying about this situation is actually beneficial (most times it’s not!) But if you find that your worrying is becoming very frequent and it’s beginning to interfere with your day-to-day life, it’s really important to seek the support of a therapist. Excessive and persistent worrying can be a symptom of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). A therapist will be able to teach you techniques for better managing your worrying and build a tailor-made plan to support you in overcoming your anxiety once and for all.