5 Questions to Get You Unstuck from Your Worries
Worrying has its place, whether it’s about a bear, a runaway train, or job security. The brain is built for such stuff; it has more sensitivity for bad events than good ones, upping the chances for a person’s survival. But constant worrying, the ruminating kind, isn’t so positive. The challenge is that it’s easy to do, since information and images, and chances to self-scrutinize, are constantly available.
The incessant nature of worrying has the brain pumping out stress hormones. That flood of hormones increases the size of the amygdala, the section of the brain that regulates mood and contributes to the fight-flight-or-freeze response. It decreases the hippocampus, the part of the brain that distinguishes memories. In this dynamic, possible threats, however miniscule, feel like actual threats. “You’re overwhelmed by the limbic reaction,” says Jeff Bostic, M.D., psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “The brain cells are more attuned to danger, and they take over. You’re perpetually on guard.”
You’re also in a groove, and since that’s formed by a routine, it can be hard to get out of. Asking yourself questions can upend the cycle. They might not lead to the answer. “It’s usually not that easy,” says Robyn Landow, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist. But they can help get you to an answer, which means you’re back in control and can strategize. The following five questions might help when you’re feeling stuck:
What do I need right now?
The form of this question is self-nurturing—probably in short supply in the moment—and it inspires problem-solving. “You’re asking to free-associate,” Landow says. The initial thought might be irrational, e.g., “I need to find a bag of money,” and that’s fine. Just keep going. Practical solutions will eventually bubble up. They could be something small, like needing a phone number or simply walking out of the room, but you’re now focusing on what’s within your power rather than what isn’t.
What is the evidence for the thought or feeling I’m having?
You want to inject some reasoning into the process. This question will trigger the prefrontal cortex, which is good for logic, and rein in the amygdala. Whether it’s a fear of being bitten by a shark or getting lost in the woods, you want to test it: How many people has this happened to among your friends? On your street? In your town? The probability goes down with each successive question. “You’re looking at data and analyzing it,” Bostic says. “That’s the rumination you want. It’s better than catastrophizing.”
What’s the next thing I need to do?
Lists can be fun and helpful—until they aren’t. Daily tasks mix together with monthly goals, and it becomes amorphous. You feel overwhelmed; nothing gets done, making you feel even more overwhelmed. The solution is to forget about crafting and fine-tuning the actual list and use the time to do one thing on it. However small the item, you achieve momentum and then ask what the next thing is. “Action begets action,” Landow says. “It’s a good way to get out of paralysis by analysis.”
What’s everyone around me doing?
It’s more evidence and another way to tap into the prefrontal lobe. For example, if there’s a fire and no one is running away, chances are that it’s all right to keep walking. “You get the gauge,” Bostic says. “If people aren’t freaking out, it’s not the level of danger you initially thought it was.”
And it doesn’t need to involve an emergency. If you’re taking a yoga class or working out at the gym, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong. Examine it as objectively as possible, because it’s also easy to only look for evidence that confirms a negative hypothesis. Are you being shunned by other members? Has the staff asked you to leave? Is the staff acting differently to you than to everyone else? People’s behavior might well not be personal. They just might not be friendly in general. A common underlying stressor is the feeling of being judged when that’s not the case. “Most of the time, other people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think they are,” Bostic says.
Can I breathe?
Of course, the answer is yes, so do it deeply! “Deep breathing is incompatible with the notion of danger,” Bostic says. Your heart rate goes down, and the parasympathetic nervous system dominates. Your brain can de-escalate the situation and assess. The other aspect is that while words can be calming, the emotional brain doesn’t always respond to them. Doing something physical is sometimes the only message it can understand.
Hyperextending the fingers and toes—counting to five and then relaxing—has the same effect. The benefit is that these moves are low-key. Taking breaths. Hands on your knees. Toes inside your shoes. No one has to know, eliminating another source of stress. The wrinkle is that they need to be practiced before the crisis hits. For breathing, do it three nonstressful times a day: once in the morning, at lunch, and at night. The 3-4-5 method is simplest, Bostic says. Breathe in for three counts, hold for four, and exhale for five. After two weeks, you’re ready to be mindful and can start with the questions, which activate the prefrontal cortex, and, if needed, go to the breathing. “You can counter the signal from the body to panic,” Bostic says. “You now have the tools, both verbal and emotional, to address the situation.”
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