Are you familiar with chronic worrying? Do you feel like you are worrying too much? Are you sometimes worrying about worrying too much? Does this excessive worrying interfere with your daily life? You just want to know how to live in the moment and stop worrying? You wonder if there is a worry trick that you just don’t know about yet?
Trust me, I know this all too well. In fact, in the picture below you can see my notebook after I was done writing down all the worries that popped up in my head over the course of one week. I was shocked. 7 days and I could easily fill almost 4 pages just full of worries. During those 7 days, I was on a trip abroad for New Year’s Eve with good friends. I actually had a lot of stuff going on distracting me.
Just imagine how many pages I could fill during a regular week.
So, how did I end up writing all my worries down? I discovered a book. A book that I am really glad to have found, because it helped me to understand my habit of worrying about everything and what to do about it. The Worry Trick written by David Carbonell, Ph.D., also known as the Anxiety Coach1, has really changed my understanding about worries and has helped me deal with them.
I wanted to share the experiences I made following his advice from the book, because I am sure it can help you too.
You Are Normal, All of This is Normal
To preempt something – no, nothing is wrong with you. Absolutely everybody is worrying about something. Different people just perceive their worries in different ways, and some people are taking them maybe a bit too serious.
The reason for that is that worries are thoughts, and we all know that sometimes our thoughts and expectations can simply be wrong. However, the tricky thing about worries is that they also make us feel something. We get an emotional response from them. They make us feel nervous.
Being nervous is not a bad thing at all, it helped us humans to be alert in critical situations. This helped humans to survive as we are able to anticipate dangers before they occur, so that we can avoid them. This skill can also become problematic, especially today where our environment is mostly safe and we don’t have to fear deadly dangers around every corner like our ancestors had to. Worrying thoughts can make us feel afraid even when there is no apparent danger. This can interfere with us solving the actual problems we have in our everyday life.
The good news is, that this is something that we all can work on. I’m learning it myself and can already feel improvement.
It’s Not About Stopping Worries, It’s About Changing Your Relationship With Them
The fight against our worries is rigged. One of the main things you need to understand is that you can not win the fight against them. They will always have another “But what if…?” up their sleeve, no matter how much you are trying to reassure yourself that your anxiety about something is pointless.
I am sure that you are familiar with two approaches of dealing with worrying:
- You take your worrying thoughts seriously and consider them important, thinking that they are preparing you for some sort of negative event in the future. You ask Google about it, get opinions from others on their perspective of the likelihood for this event to happen. Maybe you even have some behavioral responses. For example, I realized that when a really strong anxious thought is taking over my mind, I make a humming sound to force myself away from this thought.
- You are trying to stop the worrying thoughts. Trying different things, from telling yourself over and over again to stop worrying, to getting drunk or binge eating. Maybe even taking other substances. All just to make the worries in your head stop.
You probably also know how great those approaches work to get rid of your worries. They don’t. Therefore, it is time to try a different approach to deal with them.
For sure you are familiar with the cycle I sketched below. You are worrying and it is taking over your mind. You realize it. You try one of the two approaches from before. Then you get frustrated that they are not working. Now you are back to worrying, but now not only about the initial worry, but also about the actual worrying itself.
Let’s break the cycle.
Game Changer: The Rule of Opposites
First of all, you need to understand that the goal is not to stop worrying. You need to realize that worries are just thoughts like any other kind of thoughts. We can’t stop our brain from thinking. Go ahead and try not to think about a pink elephant right now. I think I can guess what image just popped up in your mind. Even I’m thinking about it writing this.
You see, trying to stop your thinking just intensifies it. That’s just how our brain works. The same goes for worries, as worries are also just thoughts. Realizing this will be a big step for you towards a healthier relationship with worry.
The Rule of Opposites works because worrying is a counterintuitive problem that requires a counterintuitive solution approach. To put it simply, you need to do the opposite of what your gut instinct is telling you to do.
This might sound strange at first, but makes a lot of sense after you have tried it yourself. Let me show you how.
Actionable Steps to Change Your Relationship With Worries
Coming back to our two familiar ways of dealing with worries – taking them serious and indulging in them or trying to stop them by force – let’s figure out what things we can do which would be a complete opposite to those. Luckily, David Carbonell, Ph.D., got us covered with some great advice in his book.
1) Recognize and Accept Your Worries and Evaluate Them for What They Are – Just Thoughts.
Every one of us has thoughts. Every one of us has worries. For both of them applies the same – it doesn’t matter what happens in your head, only your actions matter.
Did I ever think about killing someone? Yes, I did. Did I ever think about going complete nuts, screaming around in a place with lots of people around me? Yes, I did. Did I ever think about giving a Martin Luther King kind of speech on public transport during my commute to wake everyone up from this daily madness? Yes, I did. Very often.
While having all those thoughts, I never did any of those things (although I am working on the last one). You get the point. Only actions count.
So instead of keeping busy with your worrisome thoughts, make it a habit to just recognize whenever one of those “What if…?” worries pops up and simply accept it as a thought. Sometimes that is already enough.
For persistent worries, instead of following the path of one “What if…?” after another, change the question to “What is this worry about and how can I respond to it right now?”.
Is it about a problem that exists in the external world around you right now? If so, can you do something right now to change it?
If you can answer both of those questions with a “yes”, then go and do something about that problem right now. If one of the two gets a “no”, then just accept that the worry is there and let it be.
2) Humor Your Worries Instead of Arguing and Fighting With Them.
Yes, having fun with your worries is actually possible.
You could sing a small song about your worry or try worrying in your head with a weird foreign accent.
Another way is taking your worry and exaggerating it on purpose, much like improv theatre. So when I’m worrying about “What if I will never find my life’s calling and forever be on a never-ending search?” it could become this:
“What if I will never find my life’s calling and forever be on a never-ending search, which will make me go crazy and bitter, which will make other people stay away from me, which will make me lonely until I finally turn towards drugs to numb myself for the rest of my life?”.
This exercise really worked for me, because it reveals a worrisome thought for what it is – just a thought about a very unlikely scenario. The Rule of Opposites! Give it a try and find out!
3) Get Back Into the External World Doing Your Stuff.
Even if this might sound too simple, it actually works. Very often worry gets into the way when we want to work on something that we need to do. Once you have learned to recognize when there is a worry creeping up in your mind, turn the tables around and counter it by starting to work on something in your external world.
From my own experience, it can help to find a task that does not require you too think. So if you are studying and a worry pops up distracting you from concentrating, take a quick break and go unload the dishwasher, which you ignored this morning. Or didn’t you write “Clean my shoes” on your to-do list already a week ago? Go do that.
Suddenly your worries became a tool to get all the small household tasks done.
4) Set Up a Daily Worrying Workout.
The author recommends in his book The Worry Trick to consider setting up a daily worry workout. It consists of setting up an appointment for yourself every day to fully focus on worrying.
Take 10 minutes during your day, at a time when you can be for yourself, and go sit or stand in front of a mirror and speak your worries out loud. You can even prepare them in a notebook and read them out loud. During those 10 minutes, you don’t need to find a way to solve your worries or do anything else about them. Simply confront yourself with them and listen.
I realized that this works a lot like saying out loud the same word over and over again. “Noodle. Noodle. Noodle. Noooodle. Noodle.” After a while, every word sounds ridiculous this way and the same thing applies to your worries.
David Carbonell, Ph.D., also recommends to do regular belly breathing exercises, which might help you to stay calm when worries take over.
Also, mindfulness meditation is a great exercise to create a better relationship with your thoughts. I personally have made great experiences with a guided meditation app called Headspace2. I can really, really recommend checking it out.
5) Stop Fooling Yourself by Keeping It All to Yourself.
Too often we think that we are all alone with our worries and that everyone around us seems to be so worry-free. Even though we know that the opposite is the case. Everyone worries. Don’t let your worries isolate you from others even more.
By sharing your worries with someone you can trust, you allow yourself to get feedback from someone with a different perspective. This will help you to take back control about your thoughts, rather than having the worries dominate your mind convincing you of some unlikely events that might happen or not.
Also, this will beautifully help you to get even more connected with other people. Sharing our worries makes us vulnerable and this is what ultimately connects us as human beings and allows us to build trust.
You will see, after you make a first step, often times the other person will also start sharing their worries with you and you can support each other, knowing that none of you is alone with those anxious thoughts.
6) Support Yourself Like You Support Others.
Talking about supporting each other – it is also time to realize that you can support yourself in just the same way. Why are we so critical and negative with ourselves, but at the same time always supportive and encouraging for others, even if they have the exact same worries? We need to start becoming our own biggest supporter – and there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about doing that.
Okay, I’ll start. “You are doing fine, Benny! Don’t worry! You’ll figure it all out!”
Summing It Up – You Got This!
As I hope you can see, chronic worrying is a very common issue. There is nothing wrong with you and there are some actionable steps and exercises that you can take to learn how to live in the moment and stop worrying. No, wait! It’s not about stopping the worries, remember? It is about changing your relationship with them!
I hope you can find a way of doing just that with some of my experiences I shared in this article. If you want to learn more about the matter and get more into detail, or when you know someone who could benefit from all this, you should really get a copy of the book The Worry Trick by David Carbonell, Ph.D., as his advice has helped me tremendously.
Responding to chronic worry without humor is like drilling a tooth without local anesthesia.
– David Carbonell, Ph.D.
You got this!