5 Science-Backed Ways to Worry Less in Your Day-to-Day Life
Everyone experiences feelings of worry from time to time. You might find yourself growing anxious about traffic during your morning commute, or tossing and turning at night after tallying up the bills. This is a normal part of, well, being human.
The good news? “The more aware we can become of our worries, the more opportunities we have to choose what we wish to do with them,” says Cecily Sakai, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Honolulu. For example, would you like to start meditating to help you stay calm during your morning commute, or should you handle your finances in the morning to give yourself more time to let go of money stress before bedtime?
Learning to manage these thoughts and feelings can help improve your quality of life—and your health. Worry may be linked to a whole host of health issues, like an overproduction of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), heart disease, reduced immune function, and problems sleeping, according to findings from a study published in 2020 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Fortunately, there are several easy expert-approved ways to integrate worry-busting techniques into your daily life. Start with these five ways to worry less.
1. Play Your Favorite Upbeat Tunes
Did you know that music has an effect on both your mental and physical well‑being? According to findings from a review published in 2020 in the journal Health Psychology Review, playing music may have a positive effect on heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone levels—all of which can help us feel calmer.
So, what should you tune in to? “Listening to positive, upbeat music or music with a positive association can help one [self]-soothe and calm down,” says Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, Ph.D., a therapist in New York City. Her suggestion? “Compose a playlist of positive songs so [you can] play it when you’re feeling nervous or down to get some distance from your thoughts.”
2. Practice Deep-Breathing Exercises
The connection between breath and mind is undeniable, according to Schreyer-Hoffman. “A great way to self-soothe is taking deep breaths,” she says. “Deep breathing helps to calm our bodies and gives us something to focus our minds on when feeling distressed.”
Breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s ability to find calm and rest, according to the American Institute of Stress. This system counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our not-so-calm fight-or-flight response. So, by learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, you can gain more control over your responses to stress.
Schreyer-Hoffman recommends using the 4-7-8 technique:
- Breathe in deeply for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Release your breath slowly for eight seconds.
Repeat this breathing pattern up to four times to get the most from the exercise.
3. Engage in Mindfulness
You’ve probably heard the word “mindfulness” a lot—but what is it, exactly? Put simply, mindfulness is about noticing things. It’s a meditative state in which you seek to become aware of what you’re feeling or sensing, like the anxious knots in your stomach, or thoughts of worry.
“We may learn to observe the worry as something coming and going in our mind and yet not necessarily anything we need to attach to,” Sakai says. So, rather than attaching meaning to your worries, the goal is to simply notice and accept them without judgment.
Although practicing mindfulness can help you in the moment, developing a long-term mindfulness practice may improve mental health by changing the structure and function of the brain itself, according to study findings published in 2020 in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. And research suggests that engaging in brief, daily mindfulness meditation can help you reap these benefits.
4. Acknowledge Your Worries
Sakai is a big fan of cognitive defusion, a practice in which you use mindfulness to realize you’re having a worry and then separate yourself from the thought.
For example, if you’re worried you’ll mess up a big presentation at work, cognitive defusion can come in handy. “By saying, ‘I’m worried about such and such,’ we become fused with our worry and unable to see the worry as just a thought as opposed to fact,” Sakai says. “But if we shift that thought to say, ‘I’m having a feeling of worry,’ we are defusing ourselves from the worry.”
The idea is to acknowledge your thoughts and then let them go rather than holding on to them.
5. Keep a Worry Journal
Journaling about your worries can help you put those fretful thoughts somewhere else rather than holding on to them in your mind, which can lead to rumination (i.e., repetitive, excessive thoughts that interfere with thinking about other things).
In fact, journaling has been shown to help people cope with stressors by allowing them to process thoughts and confront inhibited emotions, according to a review published in 2018 in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.
How can you get started? Create a simple worry log. First, set aside a fixed amount of time—just five or 10 minutes—to write down your worries. Then, go back through and challenge each worry on the list by asking yourself questions like:
- How likely is this to happen?
- What are some things I can do to address this worry?
- What support can I seek to help me handle this worry?
Sakai advises that you engage with the worry. “When you see and expose yourself to the worries, it helps to reduce the impact that the worries have over you,” she says.
When to Seek More Help to Cope with Worries
At the end of the day, feelings of worry are a part of life. If you’re having a tough time managing worries, seek support.
“If the worry interferes with your ability to function day to day, it’s especially important to seek therapy to address these concerns,” Sakai says. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
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