10 Ways to Conquer Worry
From gratitude journals to simple meditation, follow these tips to alleviate worrying and ease stress in your life.
Ease your mind
Did you turn off the stove burner? Will your child get into college? What’s that rash on your hand? Worrying is a natural response to things that affect everyone at one time or another. But chronic worrying, the kind that never lets up, can be unpleasant, distracting, and even harmful to our health and well-being, says Kate Sweeny, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. What to do about it? Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, give yourself a big dose of self-compassion and try these tips to clear your mind and worry a little less.
Chronic stress and indecision go hand in hand. What’s the connection with clutter? People who accumulate clutter tend to have trouble deciding what to do with their stuff. (“I’ll keep this catalog/insurance form/magazine article until I can find the time to deal with it.”) A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders finds “information processing deficits” in people who surround themselves with clutter. In other words, they worry so much they have a harder time making decisions.
How to unclutter your space and reduce worrying? Start with one small area and create rules. For example, vow to clear the kitchen counter every single night, even if that means piling the junk on another surface. Then add another rule: Completely clean off the table. And another: Clean out the sink. Continue until you can maintain several areas of your home without clutter, and hopefully your worrying will ease up.
Focus and calm your thoughts
Worry is a primary characteristic of anxiety, which is often a byproduct of a mind in overdrive. The best approach to quiet the chatter in your mind and stop the worrying may be a form of simple meditation. Close your eyes and focus on your breath, “watching” it flow in and out of your nostrils. If thoughts pop up about the groceries, the bills, or the state of the economy, notice them and then redirect your attention to your breath. Keep doing this for 5 minutes. At first, you might spend 20 seconds truly focused on your breath and 4 minutes and 40 seconds redirecting your thoughts away from your worries, but that ratio should improve with practice. Try these other mindfulness tips for living in the moment—worry-free!
Some research shows that hypnosis can be tremendously useful for people who worry too much. One 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that hypnosis helps with a variety of health conditions, including anxiety and sleep. Other research suggests that hypnosis may be even more helpful at relieving anxiety than cognitive behavioral therapy. There are many benefits of hypnosis, and many ways to get them. To find a licensed psychologist certified in hypnosis, ask your family doctor or your regular psychologist for a referral, or consider one of the many free or low-fee hypnosis apps out there. One of them might offer you relief.
Find your flow
If mindfulness isn’t your thing, another great option is to identify flow activities in your own life, says Sweeny. These are activities that completely absorb your attention, diminishing self-awareness and allowing time to fly by. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that “flow” may be more important than money or success for personal well-being. For example, video games are great for creating flow states, but so are lots of other activities: gardening, organizing a closet, accomplishing something for your job, using a language-learning app, etc. It’s different for everyone.
Look on the bright side
Worrying can actually increase your appreciation for life, says Sweeny. “Worry has upsides,” she points out. “It motivates us to avoid bad outcomes when possible and prepare for them when they’re unavoidable. For example, research shows that people who worry more about car accidents are more likely to wear a seatbelt, and people who worry more about breast cancer get screened more on the recommended schedule. Worry draws our attention to something bad that might be coming, and it gives us the boost of motivation we need to do something about it.” A 2017 study published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that worrying makes you think about possible bad outcomes so you prepare for them in a way that makes you feel that you’ve taken action.
Keep a journal
One way to put positive thinking into practice is to keep a gratitude journal, which can help alleviate worrying. Make the entries detailed and specific. Instead of writing “I’m grateful for my family,” write “I’m grateful that my granddaughters came for dinner tonight. I love to watch them learn how to use proper manners. I’m grateful they live nearby so I can watch them grow up.” Over time, doing this routinely should help eliminate some worry. A 2018 study published in Psychotherapy Research found that people who wrote gratitude letters for four weeks reported significantly better mental health than those who didn’t write thankful notes. Here are expert tips for starting a journal.
Create a worry book
Worriers need a place to deposit their negative thoughts, too. Keep a small memo pad handy, and whenever you feel yourself starting to worry about something, open it and write down everything that’s concerning you, without thinking about how you’re saying it or whether you’ve said it a thousand times before. Some people find that putting thoughts on paper can help break a repetitive cycle of worry, which can deplete your capacity for performing other cognitive tasks. Like earlier research, a 2017 study published in Psychophysiology found that “expressive writing” about worries can reduce the size of the negative brain wave signal in people who worry a lot.
Label the feeling
Don’t try to talk yourself out of mental stress or pretend it’s not there. Instead, look inward and label how you’re feeling. You might say “nervous” or “anxious,” objectifying the emotion as a scientist would. With practice, this technique has been shown to help people head off the cascade of negative emotions that comes from stress. “Mindfulness labeling is great for counteracting worries. It helps you to stop thinking about future possibilities and instead focus on what’s true now, in the present moment. It also helps you to notice your emotions rather than letting them take over without you even realizing it,” says Sweeny.
Create a personal mantra
If you’re going through a stressful period or you tend toward anxious thoughts, a personal mantra can help you refocus your mind on positive thoughts, says Sweeny. To create yours, make a list of the three things that matter to you most. Then think of one word that represents each. Choose positive, powerful words that resonate deeply with you. Let’s say your top three things are a close family, good health, and the environment. Your mantra could become, “Love, strength, Earth.” Whenever you are presented with a challenging situation, recite your mantra in your head. Stuck? Try these morning mantras to brighten your day.
Imagine the worst-case scenario
Sometimes forcing yourself to think of the worst thing can be the best thing for an anxious brain. If you find yourself trapped in “what-ifs,” a common state of mind for people with chronic anxiety, face your fears head-on: “If the stock market doesn’t recover, I won’t recover my lost savings and I’ll be forced to live on the street.” When you say it out loud, doesn’t it seem a little far-fetched? What’s more likely to happen?
Imagining worst-case scenarios accomplishes two things: It helps you see how unlikely the fear really is, and it helps you confront the fear head-on so you can prepare at least a tentative plan for recovery. Here are some common fears you really don’t need to worry about.
- Kate Sweeny, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside
- Journal of Affective Disorders: "Effects of clutter on information processing deficits in individuals with hoarding disorder"
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "Hypnosis Intervention Effects on Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review"
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- Social and Personality Psychology Compass: "The surprising upsides of worry"
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- National Institute of Mental Health: "Anxiety disorders"
- Anxiety.org: "Facts About the Effects of Mindfulness"
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: Anxiety disorders
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- Journal of Clinical Psychology: "Phobias of Attachment‐Related Inner States in the Psychotherapy of Adult Survivors of Childhood Complex Trauma"
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: "Finding Help"