How to worry less
An 8 minute read • Alan A
Part of our life hacks series. If you’re a worrier you are not alone. You keep good company. Worrying is as old and pervasive as the human race itself.
“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
Yes, it may never happen, but that’s much easier to say with the perspective of hindsight. How can we begin to let go of our worries and stop them dominating our thoughts? There’s no silver bullet of course, but there are things that can help make a difference quite quickly.
So how do we worry a little less? Firstly, we need to accept that worrying to excess is not helpful and can be counterproductive and even harmful.
When we chew ourselves up over the past, or ruminate about an uncertain future, we may not be achieving much that’s useful. No doubt a little worry can spur us on to make changes or take control of a situation. That’s a positive effect. But when we get trapped by worry, paralysed, stuck in a torturous mental repeat loop, we need to stop!
Not only can worrying be unhelpful, it can even be harmful to our health. According to WebMD: “chronic worry and emotional stress can trigger a host of health problems”. Symptoms range from fatigue and headaches, to a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath. Personally, if I’m going to experience those symptoms, I want it to be because of a big night out and a hot date.
“…chronic worry and emotional stress can trigger a host of health problems.”
As well as acknowledging the unhelpfulness of too much worry, we also need to accept that it is possible to stop worrying. Can you think of something that used to worry you but no longer does? I hope you can. It demonstrates that worry is transient by its very nature. Why not give it a gentle nudge along?
So how do we stop worrying so much?
Now whatever you worry about may well be very personal and unique to you. (Or at least it may seem like that. Chances are though, that others have had very similar anxieties to you, now or in the past.)
Whatever the specifics of your concerns, there are a few questions that it’s worth asking yourself, that may just help you take a step back and break out of your current cycle of worry.
If the cause of your worry is something bad that you think is going to (or might) happen, ask yourself this simple question:
Q1. How many assumptions am I making here?
Have you ever found yourself chaining together a whole sequence of assumptions that lead, in your head at least, inevitably to a particular, negative outcome? This is surprisingly easy to do. Our minds appear to stitch together assumptions faster than we can question them, but question them we must, for if just one of the assumptions is wrong, then the outcome can be completely different. This is great news! In my experience, many worries can be alleviated simply by counting the assumptions and mentally “breaking the chain”.
The simple act of realising that a whole sequence of things would actually have to happen before the thing that you’re worrying about could itself occur, can help break the chain.
Once you have checked out your assumptions, and put them into check, what’s next?
One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given is that when you notice a worrying thought passing through your mind, ask yourself this question:
Q2. Is this thing I’m worrying about an immediate threat to me, right here, right now?
If it is, then the feeling of worry is no doubt quite appropriate. Worry and stress are closely related to our fight or flight instincts, and can be very useful when there is a clear and present danger to our wellbeing. If somebody is pointing a gun at you, you’d better be worried, in fact you should probably be terrified! Your emotional response and the physical effects it produces might just save your life. Fight or flight!!
All too often though, we worry about things in the past or the future. Did I say the wrong thing to my friend earlier? Am I going to mess up the interview tomorrow? When we go over these things in our heads again and again, the emotion builds and we feel bad.
Remember: the past and future do not need to impact us in the same way as the present. If we’re mindful of the present moment, what’s going on around us just now, the past and future recede and become less of a concern. Just as a gun pointing to your head right here and now is a situation that genuinely does demand your attention, when something really is happening at this very moment, you can act.
A useful set of rules for worriers is encapsulated in what’s sometimes known as the serenity “prayer”, paraphrased here:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
In other words, when a troubling thought comes to mind, ask yourself this question:
Q3. Is this thing I’m worrying about something I have any control over?
If your answer is yes, then take appropriate action. Doing something positive usually feels better than worrying. Sometimes, you just need to give yourself a little push in the right direction. Go on, you can do it!
If your answer is no, then can you allow yourself to accept the situation that you cannot change? Logically, you have no alternative, so you better had! Radical, I know. Serenity is the way forward.
Sometimes, however, you may or may not have control over the thing that concerns you. Perhaps you have influence but not full control. In this case, ask yourself the following question:
Q4. If this thing does happen, would it really be so bad?
For instance, let’s say you have to take your dreaded driving test tomorrow, and you think you’ve done all the preparation you can, but you still worry you will fail because you cannot take account of all the potential things that could go wrong – such as other drivers making mistakes that affect you, or bad weather conditions causing you to miss a traffic signal, or a herd of wildebeest stampeding across the road … this is your own worry thread so you can be as imaginative as you like!
In this situation, what would happen if you did fail your driving test? Well, you could take it again perhaps!
Like our page above to follow us on Facebook
So, with a bit of practice, if you can first learn to spot yourself starting to worry, and then ask yourself these simple questions, it could help you worry a whole lot less.
At a glance
- Q0. Am I starting to worry about this thing?
- Q1. Is this thing I’m worrying about based on a chain of assumptions (or at least one assumption)?
- Yes => Count and consider the assumptions
- No => Move on to the other questions
- Q2. Is this thing I’m worrying about an immediate threat to me, right here, right now?
- Yes => Take appropriate action (do the best you can under the circumstances)
- No => Focus more on the present (if it helps, make a note that you will deal with the underlying cause of the worry at an appropriate time – e.g. plan to practice this afternoon for tomorrow’s interview, or decide to ask your friend when you next see her whether what you said earlier was really the wrong thing)
- Q3. Is this thing I’m worrying about something I have any control over?
- Yes => Take appropriate action
- No => Accept it and move on with serenity
- Q4. If this thing does happen, would it really be so bad?
- Yes => Take appropriate action or accept it with serenity
- No => Allow yourself to worry a little less
I hope you find this simple approach useful. If you feel you need a little more help, have you considered exploring mindfulness and relaxation techniques? These can both be really helpful. Also, diet and exercise can play their parts too. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to stop worry from taking its toll on your life. Good luck!
Let us know what you think using the feedback form below. Did we miss anything? If you liked this life hacks series article about how to worry less, please share it with friends or colleagues using the social media buttons below.
You might also like
References Churchill Quote Wikipedia WebMD Worry & Fight or Flight
How likely are you to recommend this article to friends, family or colleagues?