I once heard worry described as a down payment on a problem you may never have.
By definition, worry is tormenting yourself with disturbing thoughts. If you’re a worrier, you get it. I don’t have to explain to you the anxiety-producing sensations caused by fretting about something that’s out of your control or hasn’t happened yet. Getting trapped in the pending doom created by the imagination can negatively impact sleep, overall health and job performance.
If you’re a chronic worrier, I can relate. I had a worry habit for years. Even though I knew it was destructive to my mental health, when I was in the thick of worry, I felt powerless and anxious and didn’t know how to stop it.
After countless hours of searching for answers, testing ideas and failing in my efforts, I finally found techniques to break the habit of worry. Now, even if it starts, I have a routine that I can use to stop worrying before I get sucked into the vortex and waste hours of my life.
1. Be proactive about finding your game plan.
Ever had someone tell you “Don’t worry about it?” Easy to say, not easy to do. You and I know that saying you want to stop worrying is very different than actually stopping worrying. It’s important to find what works for you and it’s easier to do that away from a worry episode.
I used to try to figure it out when I was lying awake at night worrying and ultimately found that proactively building a worry-less strategy was easier to do in the light of day when my brain wasn’t in overdrive.
Activate this: Build your plan now. Read this article (and others), do the suggested exercises and be really honest with yourself about why you want to stop the habit of worry.
2. Become self-aware of your worry pattern.
Let’s figure out your worry patterns. How do you worry? Are you a verbal worrier, sharing your fears with anyone who will listen, especially complaining to those closest to you? Do you keep your biggest fears in your head all for yourself? Does your worry manifest physically by interrupting your sleep or causing you anxiety attacks? Are there specific triggers or types of challenges that magnify your worrying? Do you believe your worry stories so much that you think they are factual?
Activate This: Write down the answers to the above questions to get a clear understanding of your worry habit.
3. Understand the impact of your worry.
You may have been worrying for so long that you don’t even realize the impact it’s having on how you approach challenges. It’s hard to find reasonable and effective solutions to current obstacles when your imagination is running wild with worst-case scenarios of what could be. Worry occupies valuable thinking and problem-solving capacity in your head and distracts you from getting work done.
A bad worry habit isn’t just about you. Having someone on a team who actively worries and vocalizes doom and gloom throws off innovation and creativity. It takes people out of problem-solving mode and focuses on fiction that may or may not align with reality. So, if you don’t want to stop the habit for your own health, focus on the negative impact you could have on others.
Activate This: For the next week take notes every time you worry. Write down who you are with, how you verbalize your worries, how they respond and how it magnifies the problem you’re potentially facing.
4. Trust yourself to deal with problems when they actually happen.
This point was pivotal for me. All the worrying in the world doesn’t stop the worst from happening.
I remember when my dad had cancer. With 4 brain tumors and lung cancer, the prognosis wasn’t good. Naturally, I spent months of nights worrying about the inevitable. Dad and I were really close; I just couldn’t fathom living without him. All the nights worrying about what that would be like did absolutely nothing to prepare me when he passed away. In hindsight, now that I understand what it’s like to worry less, I wish I’d spent that time soaking in every final conversation and supporting his journey. When he died, I grieved, I wallowed, I did everything I imagined I would do – and yet, the worry and anticipation anxiety beforehand didn’t help soften that blow.
Now when there’s a potential for something bad to happen, I acknowledge it and trust that when (and if) it happens, I have the strength and resiliency muscles built to deal with it.
Activate This: One way to practice this is to replace the worry spiral by saying, “I trust I will be strong enough to deal with this when/if it happens.” Look for proof by remembering similar times in your life when you managed to deal with difficult issues.
5. Flip worry to thinking.
Worry = bad. Thinking = good.
How can you tell the difference between unhealthy worry and healthy thinking?
Worry manufactures problems that don’t exist yet whereas thinking solves a problem that already exists.
Worry makes you feel helpless as your mind runs wild with worst-case scenarios fixating on the negative potential without proof it will transpire. Worry also adds drama and emotional intensity to situations by exaggerating or creating a false narrative in the absence of facts.
Thinking makes you feel empowered as you assess facts and carefully consider all paths to solve the problem that already exists. The caveat to that is contingency planning for potential pitfalls. Even though it’s preparing for challenges that don’t exist yet, it’s not the same as worrying, it is a proactive strategy. Most worriers don’t plan for contingencies, they are ruminating on a tale.
Activate This: When you think of a problem, check in and decide if you’re worrying or thinking. Ask, “What are the facts?” Acknowledge the artificial scenarios you’re creating by writing down the stories. Instead of artificially filling in blanks, source answers.
6. Keep tabs on your crystal ball’s success rate.
Yes, the worry about my dad dying came true, but most of my old school worry habits that infiltrated my day-to-day life did not. And when I listen to others who worry, it’s the same for them too.
A coaching client had a really strong internal messenger of bullshit. She worried a lot. She built stories of doom around lots of issues: investor relationships, client contracts and hiring decisions to name a few. After repeated attempts to help her see her worst fears were unwarranted, I just started interrupting her worry stories, with a line that reminded her that most of what she worried about in the past ended up being complete fiction. I’d simply say something about the effectiveness of her crystal ball. Its success ratio for predicting the future was zero, so why would this particular manufactured story be any different?
Activate This: What’s your crystal ball’s track record? If you don’t have a coach who is keeping score for you to remind you that worry isn’t reality, then keep track yourself. Just the small reality check that the last five times you spent countless nights worrying about something without the problem happening, can help you interrupt the current moment of worry and minimize anxiety.
7. Create a habit of building MANY alternatives.
If you’re making up stories anyway, why not choose to make up some positive ones too?
As you get learn to disciple your imagination, embrace its creativity. Worry is destructive because we fixate on one really bad story line. Combat this negativity by adding positive, supportive outcomes to the mix.
When I speak to audiences about building resilience against day-to-day challenges, one of the favorite audience takeaways is getting into the habit of developing three options. A lot of organizations call me because their teams resist change or are stuck in old ways of doing things. Training yourself to be open to multiple potential outcomes for the small stuff builds your flexibility muscles for the big stuff.
Always considering multiple paths can minimize anxiety and fixation.
Activate This: If you can’t beat them, join them. Let your overactive imagination run wild with potential outcomes. Instead of getting stuck on one idea encourage yourself to a good and a best option to the mix.
Let me know – are you a worrier? How does it impact your life? Which idea resonates with you the most? Do you have other tools/ideas you can share to help others? What does your worry-stopping game plan look like? Leave a comment below.