Worry is the unpleasant mental habit of imagining real or potential problems. We are hard-wired to worry because our brains are primed to focus on potential threats to our survival. As cave-people, those who were more risk-averse were more likely to survive and reproduce, so thanks to evolutionary biology, the propensity for worry has literally been in our blood for thousands of years.
The problem is that the part of our brain that fires up and causes us to worry does not differentiate between real and imagined threat. So whether we are in actual danger or we just think we’re in danger, our body and brain react the same way. The second problem is that our physiological response to threat is the same for social threat as it is for physical threat – so these days a performance review at work can feel just as scary as an axe-wielding intruder.
If you’re prone to worry, it’s important not to get too self-critical about it. Remember your brain thinks it’s doing an important job of keeping you safe. You can appreciate your strong survival instinct while also knowing that you do have the power to take back control of those worrisome thoughts and feelings.
To help you out, I’ve listed three simple, useful strategies you might be able to apply when you find yourself being consumed by worry:
- Postpone worry
This is a technique used in cognitive therapy where you simply decide to postpone your worry to a later time when it’s more convenient for you, say 5pm for 30 minutes. Each time you notice a worry thought pop into your mind, you simply remind yourself to postpone it until later. Then when your designated time comes, try to apply constructive problem solving to your worries.
- The Downward Arrow
When you find yourself worrying about something, use the downward arrow to drill down into the worst possible outcome. Simply ask yourself “What would be the worst thing about that, if it came to pass?” And then what would be the worst thing about that? And what would be the worst thing about that? Usually, whatever you are worrying about (even if it were to happen, which it may not) isn’t going to lead to anyone’s death, homelessness or bankruptcy. This can help to bring some perspective to whatever you’re worrying about.
When you worry, the ‘fight or flight’ part of your brain (downstairs brain) is activated, which means the cortical regions (upstairs brain) are offline. It’s the upstairs brain that helps us apply rational problem solving, whereas the downstairs brain is only concerned with our immediate survival. Taking slow deep breaths sends a message to your brain that you aren’t in danger, and therefore deactivates the ‘fight or flight’ emotional response and allows you access to your upstairs, rational brain. The other advantage of focusing on breathing is that your mind can’t be in two places at once, so focusing on counting breaths can provide a distraction from your worry thoughts.
The most important thing is to learn to notice when your mind is wanting to anticipate all the things that might go wrong or all the worst case scenarios. If you’ve “always been a worrier” that mental habit can be hard to break but the more you can bring mindful, non-judgemental awareness to that habit pattern, the better chance you have of retraining your brain to do something different.