There was a time in my life when I had two friends who would constantly message me at all times of the day and night.
It would be one worry thought after another just because someone at work spoke to my friend in the wrong way.
“Do you think my boss hates me? I am probably going to get fired. Why do you think they asked me to report back to them when the meeting is finished? Do you think they are checking up on me?”
It went on and on. Then the other friend would message me. “Hey, I'm unhappy, but I am not going to leave this situation. I am just going to keep messaging you about the same thing over and over.”
Okay, so the last part I made up, but it was the same message over and over for years.
Not to sound heartless, but at the time I was dealing with some of the worst pain of my life due to an ongoing health condition. My focus was to move forward from pain the best I could.
Did I worry?
Of course I did — all the time. But I was trying to move forward.
The messages from the friends got so bad that I finally had to tell them that unless we were talking about what was positive in their lives, I really couldn’t keep responding and move forward from my own pain.
Magically, the messages stopped.
What does worry do to us?
I once read that approximately 40 percent of what we worry about never happens at all, and 30 percent of what we worry about has actually already happened. It’s in the past, but we keep thinking about it.
As we continue to worry, the fear factor starts to prep our body for danger. Our brain gets a dose of hormones sent to the amygdala, which then goes into “fight or flight” mode.
The brain short circuits the rational parts, and we actually become irrational. Our thoughts become negative, and the brain remembers them that way.
In essence, worry makes the situation feel ten times worse that it is, and we remember it as worse than it actually was at the time. We are born with something called the “negativity bias, a tendency to react to negative stimuli more intensely than positive.
Says Barrie Davenport in her book Declutter Your Mind, “It means that you are hardwired to overthink, worry, and view situations more negatively than they are in reality. You see threats as more threatening and challenges as more challenging.”
The good news is that worry is a learned behavior, and it's easier to control than you might think (or worry about).
If you want to learn how to stop worrying, here are five positive habits to help you:
1. Practice mindfulness daily.
This is something that I learned through my own work with yoga, but you don't have to be a yogi to practice mindfulness.
You can work on being mindful each and every day. Simply put, mindfulness means being fully present in the moment. It's hard to be overwhelmed about the past or the future when you are engaged in the now.
Rather than allowing your mind to wander to your habitual anxiety thoughts, pay attention to what you are doing right now. If you are washing dishes, feel the water, observe the dish becoming clean and shiny, and dry it off with attention and care.
It's hard to be mindful every minute of the day, but become more aware of staying present with whatever you are doing, no matter how mundane.
Also, rather than allowing your thoughts to take control of you, begin to observe them from afar, with a detached perspective. Become aware of them, but then we let them go and return your focus to the present moment at hand.
Mindfulness takes regular practice in order to help you detach from constant worry, but it's well worth the effort. When your mind is busy with the present moment, it doesn't have time to worry.
When you do find yourself worrying, you can lessen the angst by detaching from your thoughts and observing them without judgment.
2. Practice gratitude for the good in your life.
When I asked my friends to do this, I stopped hearing from them.
I was a sounding board for their misery and misery loves company. But I no longer wanted to stay in that state of mind.
I started a practice of gratitude journaling in November of last year and continue it to this day. It has made a huge difference in relieving my own worry thoughts.
The practice of gratitude isn't just a feel-good platitude. “Study after study reinforces how profoundly expressions of gratitude positively impact your health, your moods, and your relationships,” says Barrie in a post on the topic. “Several studies have shown how depression is relieved by expressing gratitude.”
Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to keep your mind off your worries and reinforce how much in your life is going well.
When you write about your feelings of gratitude, take a moment to focus on the feelings and savor them. Soak your brain in these positive feelings so they absorb any negativity than might be lingering in your psyche.
During your daily activities, become more mindful of all of the good around you — the people you care about, the food on the table, the beauty of nature. You'll feel even more grateful if you ponder life without these important people and things.
3. Practice yoga and meditation.
Some people confuse yoga with being flexible. While yoga does help with flexibility, and it certainly helped me start moving again, it also centers you in the present moment.
As someone who lives with pain, I have found the practice of yoga extremely beneficial in relieving my pain and my worry about it.
I focus only on the yoga pose in front of me and have moved beyond my pain to what I am now able to accomplish — movements that were not possible a year ago.
Yoga encompasses a broad range of exercises, from intense cardiovascular movements to relaxingly meditative poses that require focus and concentration.
Says Valencia Porter, M.D., director of integrative medicine at the Chopra Center, “With yoga, we can also release stress and tension that accumulates in our body. An increased sense of self-awareness that can be attained by practicing yoga and meditation can also help us understand how we respond to the cycle of natural rhythms through the day.”
Yoga is a form of moving meditation in which your body and mind are deeply interconnected with each movement, exercise, or pose.
However, meditation alone can be practiced at any time and in any location. You don't have to practice yoga to enjoy the benefits of meditation.
Meditation is simply a way of clearing your mind by anchoring yourself to the present moment. You anchor yourself through attention to breathing.
I focus on the breath even if it’s only three breaths. Clear the mind, breathe in. Feel your lungs expand, release and breathe out. Repeat three times.
When you first begin a meditation practice, you mind will wander to your worry thoughts, as well as a variety of other thoughts that happen to float by.
Don't resist the thoughts. Simply notice them and return your attention to your breathing. Over time, increase the number of breaths and the time you focus on them.
4. Exercise every day.
Exercise is one of the best cures for worry you will ever find.
It releases the endorphins we need to start feeling good again.
Walking, riding a bike, getting on a treadmill, sit ups, and even chair yoga at your desk all can help you focus again on the task at hand instead of the worry.
Exercise not only makes you feel better physically, but also it improves your self-esteem, confidence, and overall mood. When we're in a positive frame of mind, we just don't worry as much.
Pick an exercise that you enjoy and that feels comfortable for your fitness level. I love Barrie's recommendations about rebounding [learn about rebounding exercise here], which is one of the most fun and beneficial exercises you can find. It's easy on your joints and great for you lymphatic system.
5. Write positive affirmations daily.
Affirmations are a type of auto-suggestion. By practicing them every day, they reinforce new, positive chemical pathways in your brain, strengthening neural connections for a more optimistic outlook.
Where do you find yourself worrying? At work? In your car? At home?
Wherever it is, use sticky notes and write out some affirmations to keep in sight.
“I am in control of my thoughts.”
“I am confident and successful.”
“I release thoughts that do not serve me.”
These types of statements are powerful and help you train and control your thoughts, not the other way around.
Check out Barrie's list of 101 positive affirmations if you need some ideas to get started.
After you start practicing some ways to take control of our thoughts, it is time to take a good look at what causes the worry.
- What are you doing as the worry starts? Start to pay attention.
- Are you on your phone? Maybe the person you're talking with triggers your worry.
- Reading someone’s social media status? Unplug for a while.
- Are you reading into comments made at work without asking for clarification? Speak up and ask what’s on your mind.
- Are you judging a situation without all the facts? Move to observation.
- Are you stuck in a cycle of what you should have done? This puts you back in the past, so practice the mindfulness technique.
- Are you starting to feel a panic attack because of worry? Get to yoga, exercise, or start breathing deeply to calm your thoughts down and affirm that you are in control of your thoughts. They are not in control of you.
If you need a little more inspiration to help you stop worrying, here are a few quotes to remind you to stay present:
If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep. ~Dale Carnegie
Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight. ~Ben Franklin
You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. ~Pat Schroeder
Rule number one is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule number two is, it’s all small stuff. ~Robert Eliot
Don’t shoulder the burdens of others!…
Each man has his own special troubles,
His worries and problems and woes;
Give aid when you can to each mortal,
But try not to feel all his blows!
For you, too, have burdens to carry;
And, if you just wear yourself out
In agony over all others,
How can you, your own troubles, rout?
~Gertrude Buckingham, “Good Advice”
In the end, I use a combination of techniques to combat my own worry.
I started doing more outside of my house, and less inside. I started meeting with friends on a regular basis and teaching them how to journal and focus on gratitude.
I became a yoga teacher who wove intricate quotes into the classes and taught meditation techniques right there on the spot.
I let go of things that were not meant for me, and made some new friends who knew how to be grateful even during illness.
It did not happen overnight as I am constantly using mindfulness and remembering that worry is a learned behavior — one that has taken me years to perfect, so it’s natural that getting it under control takes some work. However, I was ready to do the work.
Aimee Halpin is a wellness advocate, yoga teacher and fighter of obscure diseases (namely her own). Her passion is helping others find their spark again after getting diagnosed with invisible diseases. Her writing has appeared in two books, e-zines, a local magazine in her hometown, and all over the internet. She started her blog, The Burned Hand, to help others fight illness and still maintain hope.