Wednesday 20 March 2019

Why worry? 10 tips on how to conquer your thoughts to calm your mind

Feelings of stress are usually rooted in uncertainty, but by monitoring our thoughts and letting go of the 'what ifs' and worst-case scenarios, we can finally be free of anxiety, writes Stewart Geddes

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You can tackle the problem of worry
The Professional Worrier

Worry can rob you of your attention and concentration at work, leave you snappy and irritable at home and have you fearful of the future, even when things are going well. If you struggle with worry, chances are you have been dealing with a busy mind for a long time. So how can you tackle the problem.

Know the signs of worry

Worry usually presents itself in the form of 'what if' thoughts and worst-case scenarios. Even when things seem to be going well, worriers can find themselves constantly fretting about the future. Worry will play out in the body as anxiety, so things like a regular nauseous stomach, headaches, tight chest, clenched teeth or aching shoulders can be some signs to look out for.

The constant racing mind may have a big effect on your concentration and ability to pay attention, which in turn can impact on your working life. Worry can affect your attitude and perspective at home, or leave you lost in your phone in an anxious effort to turn off your thoughts. Whatever the symptoms, it's good to be conscious that worry is a problem in your life.

Be aware of how intolerant of uncertainty you are

Very little in life is certain. The outcome of much of what we have to deal with in our day to day lives is ambiguous. We cannot easily predict how things will go, or what pressure will be involved. We cannot foresee all the obstacles we may encounter, or how others will react. For worriers, this is a difficult space to navigate.

Intolerance of uncertainty is the driving force of worry. If you are a worrier, you will probably be fearful of change and avoid risks because of the doubt they bring. It's important to acknowledge this about yourself before you begin to tackle your worry.

Bring yourself into the present moment

The present moment is an antidote to worry. Worry is generally future based, as you go down a rabbit-hole of 'what-ifs' and worst-case scenarios. When you are worrying, you are lost in a fantasy world. Your eyes are open, but you are not present. You are inward focused, missing everything that is going on around you.

Awareness that you are off in your head is key, then you need to find a way to bring yourself back to the present. Consciously using your senses is a great way to do this. Pick something up and run your fingers over its form. Pick out three things you can hear or smell. Stand up and look around you.

As you find yourself inevitably drifting off into your head, gently re-engage with the world around you once more.

Start taking action

With worry and negative thinking, we tend to overestimate the problem and underestimate our ability to cope. We have a problem, or problems, and we let our mind build them into something insurmountable or terrifying. The more the anxiety rises, the less likely we are to address the issues.

Taking action is crucial. Your worry will want you to get moving on everything at once, but you have to remain focused. Pick one thing and stubbornly focus on it for 30-40 minutes. Have paper and pen beside you, and once your brain comes up with something else that needs to be done, note it and immediately return to the task at hand. Once you get stuck into something you have been worried about, it tends to shrink down to a manageable size.

Stop seeing worry as a positive

Although the thought of constantly living with worry drives us to distraction, there may be part of us that fears life without it. We may believe that worry got us to where we are now, or that we would become complacent or overconfident without our tendency to overthink everything, and so we perceive value in it.

The reality is that constantly worrying about the future does not mean we do any better when we actually arrive there. In fact, it is probably more accurate that we have made it to where we are despite our worry, not because of it. Where would we be if we didn't engage in the constant worry? My guess is in the exact same place we are now, only having had much better sleep and with fewer grey hairs!

Real problem or hypothetical worry

When addressing our thoughts it is important to separate the real problems from the hypothetical 'what-if' questions. Once you notice the worry, you can ask yourself if this is a current issue that you can do anything about. If it is, then you can take out a paper and pen and make a plan as to how the problem can be addressed and when you can do it.

If your worry is a hypothetical worst-case scenario, then these thoughts need less oxygen. It is the constant engaging with these thoughts that indicate to the brain that there is a danger that you need protection from. It would be valuable to change your focus of attention here.

Separate from your thoughts

Our thoughts can feel very important or urgent. Because they come from us, we think they have to be believed or engaged with. In reality, your brain is just serving up a string of words that you have no more control over than the words in the next line you read. It can be beneficial to make this explicit in your head when addressing these thoughts.

Using the words, "I'm having a thought that…" in front of your worry thoughts can give you a sense that this is just a thought and not fact, and also take some of the sting out of the message. "I'm having a thought that I'm going to lose my job" is much less ominous than "I'm going to lose my job".

Ignore the content

You're no doubt familiar with the term 'clickbait' - those sensationalist internet headlines that grab your attention and draw you in to reading nonsense. The way you interact with your worrisome thoughts can involve a very similar process. Your brain throws up a dramatic intrusive thought which looks too enticing to ignore, and so you take a closer look.

It can be very helpful to ignore the content of these thoughts, because the content is not relevant. It's the closer look that we take that causes the problem. What often works well is simply labelling our thoughts or categorising under themes… "future worry", "negative work thoughts", "imminent danger". Then, we can try and see them for what they are - noise - and get back to doing whatever we were doing before the drama.

Letting go of the plan and embracing a little bit of uncertainty

I'm not proposing you no longer make plans, but for worriers, the planning, diary entries and endless lists can feed a constant need to be in control. This control is usually a vain attempt to make the future as certain as possible, but actually makes us slaves to the plan and leaves us anxious or angry when things do not go as expected.

Not everything has to be planned down to the minute detail. In an effort to embrace a small bit of uncertainty, thereby exposing yourself to a manageable amount of anxiety, try and leave some things unplanned, or have days off when spontaneity and chance is allowed. It may be scary at first, but the more you do it, the more uncertainty can be seen as an inevitable part of life and your tolerance for it will grow.

Addressing the quick fix

There are many things we can do that leave us in good shape to tackle our worry and anxiety. Often, however, we reach for a quick fix (alcohol, social media, video games, etc) to handle the constant thoughts. The quick fix works, but leaves us worse off when we come back out of the haze. It's worth thinking about cutting back on the short-term distractions and moving to something of more value.

The distraction is not necessarily the problem, it is often our level of engagement, so if you feel you may need to cut down on any activity and are not sure if it is a problem or a pastime, you can ask yourself these questions to help you decide: do you have control over when, for how long and how frequently you engage? If you realise an activity is having an obviously negative impact on your life, are you able to stop? Is your engagement in the behaviour having an effect on your relationships?

The Professional Worrier by Stewart Geddes is published by Hachette Ireland in Trade Paperback, available from March 14, priced approximately €16

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