Stop Worrying: The Worry Habit and How to Drop It
How many minutes, hours, days have you spent obsessively worrying about the details?
Or maybe you’re one of those chronic ‘worst case scenario’ worriers. Lying awake at night in a cold sweat imagining the grim-faced policeman about to knock on the door with devastating news. (If you have raised teenagers you definitely know this one!)
So much time, energy and thought-power devoted to possibilities that will likely never happen.
Imagine how much creativity could be freed up if chronic worrying no longer occupied your mind space?
I’m a lifelong worry-wart. Seriously, my earliest memory is of worrying about something while I stared at the black and white tiles of our kitchen floor at the tender age of two! The actual content of the worry is gone. (What DOES a two-year-old worry about anyway?)
I honed my worry skills as I grew up, and by the time I reached the ripe old age of six I was a real pro. I call it worry, but it was (and is) more like a low-vibe habit of anxiously considering what could go wrong, why people don’t like me, or if I’m even worthy of walking the planet.
It was a heavy load for a six-year-old to bear. And now nearly 50 years later I’m finally starting set that puppy down!
I’ve done loads of inner work in my quest to stop worrying: from meditation to energy work to engaging the Law of Attraction, and much more.
And yes, all of these have helped immensely.
Yet still the worry habit persists.
How will I find the furniture for my new apartment? And if I find it how will I get it over there? What if my daughter can’t find a job after college? What if the article I’ve been asked to write isn’t what they want? Who should I call to be sure I get it right? What if I’m allergic to something I’m eating and that’s why I’m so tired? How will I figure out what it is? What if I have to give up some of my absolute favorite foods? I wonder if I have an auto-immune disease? Oh no, I forgot to reply to that email, what if they think I don’t care?
And on and on and on.
It doesn’t matter what the subject, I still find myself slipping into the anxiety thought loop—unless I’m uber vigilant about watching my thoughts. Which is difficult since they fly around my head about 75,000 miles an hour. The minute I’ve latched onto one, it’s flown off and seven more have come and gone.
This worry is a habit that doesn’t want to break.
Turns out there IS a reasonable and scientific explanation for why it’s so hard to stop worrying: it’s all about the brain science.
Or, more accurately: brain chemistry. Weirdly enough our brains can become addicted! Our brain neurons will cling to certain patterns of thought because of this.
A brain science primer is beyond the scope of this blog post*—but suffice it to say for now that every thought, belief or internal story triggers a specific emotion—such as worry/anxiety. This emotion contains its own little marinade of brain chemicals, and each one is unique to us.
If a particular belief or thought pattern has become habitual (Hi Worry!) we are flooding the brain neurons with that particular special sauce. The receiving neurons in our brains respond by making more and more matching neuroreceptors—and these take the place of other neuroreceptors that we might actually desire, such as those associated with relaxation, peace and harmony.
And—again I know this is weird but it really has been proven by science—those worry neuroreceptors have voracious appetites! They want more and more of that sauce. They literally become addicted to the worry/anxiety emotion. (And this applies to any other negative or positive emotion and thought pattern we run on a regular basis).
So, even if you set the intention that you are going to quit all this stewing around (all you have to do is simply think different thoughts, right?) it can seem impossible to make the shift.
Well, Yikes! That info is enough to set your worry mind racing!
But hold on. There ARE ways around this natural proclivity of our brains. Like any other addiction, this one can be healed with Attention, Intention and Focus.
There are several practices that I use to harness the worry habit. It’s taking patience, trust and yes lots of focus, but I’m definitely noticing some huge improvements.
For example, I’ve pretty much ditched certain categories of worry, such as the worst case scenario fantasizing. It’s become abundantly clear that it’s a total waste of energy to think about these, since I’ll get plenty of opportunity to worry about it if/when it comes to pass.
Wow! That feels like freedom!
Here are three of my go-to helpers to turn the worry train around. In my next post I’ll share some more powerful techniques for tricking that addicted brain, clearing this old unhelpful pattern, and stop worrying once and for all!
Back again to this tried and true practice. And that’s because it works. Next time you find yourself in repetition mode trying to figure it all out, or lying awake when you’d rather be asleep, try this.
Take a deep inhale though your nose, slowly to a count of 5. As you inhale imagine you are gathering up all that worry, anxiety and concern.
Then slowly, again counting to 5, exhale it out imagining that you are releasing all of that worry out of your body. Sometimes it helps to purse your lips like they were around a straw as you do your exhale.
Continue inhaling and exhaling slowly for at least five breaths.
If you’re in a situation where you feel you can’t take five deep breaths, at least take one!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When I finally got myself to meditate on a regular basis it changed my life!
But what do I mean by ‘meditation’? I recently spoke with a client who was despairing because she ‘couldn’t do’ meditation. She’d been trained in TM, and she just ‘couldn’t transcend’.
The meditation I’m talking about doesn’t require any particular position, props or the attainment of a state of spiritual bliss. It is simply taking 2-20 minutes out of your day (or more if you can) to get quiet and still.
Those of us with active worry minds will notice that the intent the act of meditating doesn’t shut things off. And that’s okay.
Countless studies, articles and books testify to the truth that a meditation practice decreases anxiety and stress. If you’re ‘worried’ that you don’t have the time, just start with two minutes a day.
3. Detach and become the Observer
This one is amazing for slowing the worry momentum. As soon as you realize that you’re back in worry mode, take a mental step away from the thought. Do this by saying to yourself, “Oh look, I’m having those thoughts again.” Or, you can say, “There’s the xxxx story again.”
This allows you to realize that you are having the worry, but the worry is not you. It is something you are choosing to entertain. When you take the few seconds to step into the observer of your own thoughts it will give you a chance to decide whether you want to continue or not.
And… you might want to. Remember your brain is craving that sauce! But the more you practice stepping into observer mode, the more you loosen your brain’s addiction.
Give one or all of these techniques a try for a week and notice if there’s any change if your worry habit. Next post I’ll expand on these and share several more ideas for curing the worry addiction.
Do you have a tried and true tip for handling worry and anxiety? We want to hear it! Please share in the comments!
*If this brain science stuff intrigues you as much as it does me, an easy and quick dip into more can be found in my friend Janette Dagliesh’s ebook Your Everyday Superpower. Easy layperson’s language and lots of tips on engaging brain science to consciously co-create the life you want.
Oh, this post so resonates with me, Sarah! Like you, I’ve been practicing my worry habit (er, addiction) since early, early childhood. I still remember realizing, as a young child, that if I didn’t have something specific to worry about, my brain would search until it found something.
As an adult, I’ve come to think of this part of me as the “Neverending Story” character Gmork, a wolf-like, evil servant of the Nothing. Sometimes (usually during the night), he relentlessly searches, searches, searches my mind until finding the perfect match for catastrophe thinking. Very difficult still to wrest myself from his jaws. But, as my partner says, at least this means we’re always prepared for the worst-case scenario:)
Seriously though, I’m working hard on stepping out of this addictive cycle. Yoga, meditation and breath-work, along with listening to my favorite dharma teachers make a tremendous difference. Also nice to know that others, like you, have successfully manifested similar shifts. Thank you for sharing!
Lol, love the comical metaphor Dana… well I guess ‘love’ is the wrong word, but it made me smile because I really get this. And so true about the brain obsessively searching for something else to worry about.
I’m glad you’ve found some tools to step out of the cycle – at least sometimes. It really helps me to step into that Observer self and notice when it’s happening. Then I have more agency about deciding if this is the way I want to go.
So glad this resonates!
Hi Sarah, As a life-long worrier I related to so much of this post. I don’t even want to know how much time/energy I’ve devoted to worrying! Like you, meditation has been one of the things that has helped me to deal with the tendency to worry. I’ve been working a lot with Yoga Nidra over the last 18 months and it combines the 3 things you mentioned (breath/meditation/detachment & becoming an observer) and is a simple beginning point for people new to meditation.
Hi Dave, thanks so much for this suggestion! This is it! I’ve been hearing about Yoga Nidra for quite a while now, but have yet to give it a try. Hearing this from you tells me it is finally time to do some Yoga Nidra (which from what I understand is really more of a ‘non-doing’.
We can leave the past behind along with all those hours spent fussing and worrying. It all starts now with awareness!