How to Stop the Endless Worrying
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
In today’s column, I want to talk about how worry and control are related. Let’s explore why we feel like we need to be in control — and how trying to gain control over things beyond our reach can cause problems, and what we can do to balance this instinct.
In these unusual, uncomfortable times, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to maintain or exert control over their situation. I know professors who are spending a lot of time trying to create the perfect online learning experience for their students. I know parents who are trying to create the perfect homeschool environment for their children. I know many people stocking up on food and supplies or just plain worrying quite a bit (worry in and of itself can be an attempt to control).
So what’s going on here? When is this attempt to create control helpful, and when is it not so helpful? And how do these behaviors increase anxiety?
Let’s start by looking at the brain.
I’ve mentioned reward-based learning in previous columns. It’s the strongest learning system our brains have, and it has three main elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. A fair amount of research has linked negative reinforcement to worry and feelings of control. Basically, when triggered by external events (or internal things like fear or anxiety), our minds start to worry in an attempt to control unwanted experiences. In this scenario, the reward our brain reaps is feeling like we are doing something. Another reward is that worrying distracts us from the worse-feeling emotions of fear or anxiety.
There are two pitfalls here.
First, worry itself can become an unwanted experience. You probably know this already. If you worry a lot or spend time around people who worry a lot, you know it’s not a pleasant mental space to hang out in! Second, when worry gets reinforced through reward-based learning, it can become really hard to control the worry itself. I’m sure if you’ve worried about something and someone told you to stop worrying, you’ve just added worrying about worrying to your list of things to worry about. You can’t simply turn worry off. But remember, if you’re not careful, worry can become a habit.
Another issue here is that worry can waste a lot of energy that could be put to good use if redirected. I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted when I worry too much. Similar to what happens when our car is stuck in the sand, worry is that habitual reaction of stepping on the gas, which only digs you in deeper, getting your car more stuck — and using up precious fuel in the process.
Worry can spill out into physical actions as well. On a governmental level these days, I’m sure you’ve seen people running around trying to do something to demonstrate doing something, even if their actions are defying scientists in the process. On a personal level, you might find yourself spending a lot of time tidying up a room, or fussing over something trivial for work, instead of spending time on the more important tasks at hand.
Seeing how worry can waste energy, point you in the wrong direction, and even become a habit, what can you do?
Here’s a simple solution to help you work with worry so that you can point yourself in the right direction, and use your energy creatively and productively to move you down the road.
Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian, wrote a prayer that a lot of my patients find really helpful: the serenity prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
This prayer really doesn’t need an explanation, but that won’t stop me from linking it to brain science and giving you three simple steps to try out today.
1. Practice acceptance. When you’re all wound up in worry, your thinking brain is offline and can’t think. At these times, you go into survival mode and either slip back to old habits, or follow the herd and do what everyone else is doing. If you are religious, you can practice acceptance by praying and reminding yourself that this is in God’s hands. If you’re not religious, you can try some of the mindfulness practices I’ve been suggesting in these columns such as mindful breathing or grounding into your feet. These help you calm down, so your thinking brain can come back online
2) When your thinking brain is back online, if you are worrying, you can ask yourself: Is this actually helping me right now, or just getting me more wound up? If you’re about to do something, think about what you are about to do and ask yourself: Is this action the best path forward? Is this really helping right now, or am I doing this because it feels better to be doing something rather than nothing?
3) Find the courage to change the things you can change. For all you doers and fixers out there, the next thing I’m going to say may be really hard to hear. So, take a deep breath, and see if you can accept it. Sometimes being is more important than doing. Can you take a moment to pause, and let that urge to do something pass? Remember that just because you’re doing something doesn’t mean you are doing something helpful. You might just be wasting energy and possibly making things worse in the process.
If you must do something, here’s something that is always productive: map out any habit loops you have around doing or fixing.
- Identify what triggers the doing behavior. Is it fear or anxiety or something else?
- Identify your doing or fixing behavior.
- Map out the results of the behavior. As I mentioned, ask yourself: Does worrying get me anything besides more anxiety and worry? Did this behavior help in the past? Is it likely to help now?
My lab has found that the Olympians of worry (people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder) can effectively use app-based mindfulness training to map out their worry habit loops, step out of them so they don’t perpetuate worry as a habit, and — through this process—significantly reduce their worry and anxiety.
The more you can identify, and let go of, worry habit loops and well-intentioned (but often misguided) actions, the more this frees you up to do things that are not only within your control, but also helpful for you and those around you.
I’ll end with a page from the book my wife and I read together before bed. It’s called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy.
“I think everyone is just trying to get home,” said the mole.
Yes, I too think everyone is just trying to get home — to a place where we don’t have to worry so much about what is going to happen next.
Many of us just need help remembering how to stay on track. It’s useful to step back and make sure that you are pointed in the right direction before you spend a lot of energy charging forward.
Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.
The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. For updates, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.