We all worry at certain times. It would be strange if we did not. A challenge in our work, an exam, an unwell friend or relative or a fear about the future – these worries are perfectly understandable and cannot be avoided from time to time.
However, constant worrying can have an immobilising effect on the mind, drawing on emotional energy, raising anxiety levels, and interfering with daily life and sleep patterns, leaving you feeling restless, ill at ease and with excessive stress hormones in your body.
Worrying has been defined as the misuse of imagination, and for people who listen to your worries, it may seem that your worrying is not helping the situation at all. It may seem that you are looking at the world through an unhelpful lens – seeing a different reality from what actually exists. For example, you may conclude that everything will turn out badly and that you lack the ability to handle life’s problems, sure that you’ll fall at the first hurdle. These irrational, pessimistic attitudes are sometimes called cognitive distortions.
All-or-nothing thinking: seeing situations in a yes/no way, with no middle ground. So we may consider ourselves as failures if we do not reach perfection.
Over-generalisation: from one bad experience, you may expect it to occur repetitively, so that if you do not pass an exam first time, there is no point in trying again – in that or any other subject.
Analysing negative perceptions and discounting positives: You may receive many compliments on your work, but one negative remark will override your thoughts.
Underrating achievements: An example could be 'I was lucky to pass that exam. It was just fortunate that the right questions came up.'
‘Mind-reading’: You imagine that others think badly of you when there is no evidence to support this. You may think, ‘He must dislike me – he has not spoken with me yet at work.’
Assuming the worst: ‘Fog is forecasted tomorrow morning. This means that no one will come to my party.’
Labelling: Self- disgust can be an unhelpful accompaniment to self-analysis. ‘I am such an idiot. I deserve to be ignored by the others.’
Taking illogical responsibility: ‘I should have told her to wait until the rain stopped before driving home. She had an accident, and it was my fault.
These distortions are tricky to give up because they can be part of a longstanding pattern of thinking. You may even rationalise worrying by thinking that it is synonymous with being responsible or caring.
However, to reduce or stop worry for good, it is important to realise that excessive worrying does not serve any useful purpose. Telling yourself to stop worrying rarely works.
Here are some tips that may help:
1. Relax. Rather than merely distracting yourself from the focus of worry, try relaxing deeply while imagining what is worrying you. When the emotion is reduced, the compulsion to continue worrying is removed.
Physical tension can accompany worrying thoughts, sometimes felt in the shoulders, back or jaw when your conscious thoughts are focusing on a worrying issue. By systematically and alternately tensing and then releasing different muscle groups in your body, you can release muscle tension. As your body gradually relaxes, so your mind will follow.
2. Do regular exercise. Keeping physically active produces feel-good endorphins relieving tension and stress, increasing energy, and a sense of well-being. It can also burn off the damaging effects of stress hormones.
3. Meditate. This can work by switching your concentration from events of the past or the future to what is happening right now. By immersing yourself fully in the present moment, you can break the vicious circle of negative thoughts and worries.
5. Breathe. Our breathing tends to change when we are worrying; we take short, quick, shallow breaths, and sometimes even hyperventilate. Calm breathing can be a portable tool that you can use whenever worrying thoughts seem to overwhelm you. There are many versions of breathing exercises that you can choose from, but the most important thing is that you feel in control of your breathing, perhaps breathing in to a slow count of four, and then out to a count of four also. Breathe through your nose if possible, so that the air you breathe is filtered and warm. Doing these exercises can help you to calm down and take control of your breathing, and feel so much better.