What to Do When You Can't Stop Worrying
What a world it would be if we could all live by the immortal words of Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy!”
But let’s be honest. Even if every problem in the world (pandemics, wars, climate change) were solved tomorrow, there would always be something lurking around the corner—from nagging questions (“Will my puppy ever get house-trained?”) to health concerns (“What if that tiny mole on my shoulder is something serious?”) to existential threats ("Did I just hear that an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth?")—to keep even the most levelheaded of us up at night.
“A little bit of worry is actually good, because that's our body’s safety mechanism,” says Brittany A. Johnson, a mental health therapist in New Albany, Indiana, and author of Get Out of Your Own Way: 21 Days to Stop Self Sabotage. “If you never worried about anything, we'd have to ask why you're feeling numb or disassociated.”
Worry is a natural part of life (saying “Don’t worry about it!” only works if it means you’re picking up the check). But the act of worrying by itself is a fundamentally futile one—it offers neither relief nor the elimination of its cause.
Nevertheless, though it may be impossible to completely stop worrying altogether, there are ways to worry more productively that can spur action and move you closer to a solution and resolution rather than making you feel even worse.
The first step, Johnson says, is to first figure out your worry style: Do you play every scenario that could possibly happen through your mind? Do you just have a vague sense of dread? Do you feel helpless and overwhelmed?
Once you’ve determined your worry style, consider which of the following more productive ways of worrying could work for you.
Consider What You Can Control
Johnson says the first question you should ask yourself when you’re overcome with worry is, What action can I do in the next 24 hours to make this thing be different? Let’s say you're facing upcoming knee surgery. You can positively affect the outcome by following your doctor's pre-surgical recommendations for physical therapy, rest, and icing your knee—but you have no control over how the surgeon will perform that day.
“Focus your energy on the things you can control, and use mindfulness techniques, such as square breathing or a guided meditation, to set aside the things you can’t,” Johnson suggests.
Make Lists of Resources
Worry can sometimes seem like a shapeless and endless set of what-ifs. One way to get that morass under control is to write a list of the most likely scenarios and then find a resource to help out. For example, if you’re worried that the pandemic puppy you adopted won’t stop barking when you go back to work, you can make a list of local dog walkers, daycares, and trainers—a solution for each potential problem.
One important part of this plan, though, is to give yourself a hard stop, Johnson says. “If you're staying up all night revising and rewriting your lists, and you can’t focus on anything else, then that's not helping,” she says. Instead, schedule a set time—say 30 minutes over your lunch break—to do your research and then put it aside.
Talk to an Expert or 2
Let’s say you’re worried that your elderly parent is starting to show signs of memory loss. Calling the Alzheimer’s Association hotline or speaking to an eldercare expert can help you assess what your next steps should be.
“It can really help to seek out someone who has knowledge on this topic,” Johnson says. “But limit it to two to three people. Otherwise, the information can get overwhelming, and that can cause even more anxiety.”
Make a Step-by-Step Plan
Once you’ve gotten the information you need to dial down your worry, you can work out a plan, which gives you a sense of agency. If you’re worried that your son is falling behind in math class, for example, you can plan to talk to his teacher, buy a set of workbooks you researched online, sign up for virtual tutoring sessions, and then help him prepare for his next test.
“When you break down your plan and take it day by day, it can really help you manage your worry,” Johnson says.
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