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6 Simple Tips to Stop Worrying So Much

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Why worrying is the wrong kind of self-hypnosis and what you can do about it

"If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever."

- The Dalai Lama

Well, I totally agree with the Dalai on that. But to just not worry? To just stop like that? It's easier said than done.

I mean, when you're fretting about your relationship, or whether your words were taken the wrong way, or how are you're going to pay the mortgage, it seems like too big of an ask to just stop it. The advice "Don't worry about it!" can feel worse than useless.

But before we get onto what we can do to limit worry, let's look at what it actually is and how it can harm as well as help us.

Worry is a double-edged sword

It seems we humans first learned to use our imaginations as (relatively) recently as 40 to 60 thousand years ago.1 Up until then, there was barely any symbolic thought - at least, there was no sign of religion or art to indicate the evolution of imagination.

The ability to reflect on the past and imagine possible futures is what enabled humanity to transcend the moment, learn from mistakes, and plan and build what would eventually become civilizations. Imagination enables empathy and invention. It makes us human and is perhaps our greatest tool. But, like any tool, it can be turned into a weapon of self-harm all too easily.

When we dream at night we enter the rapid eye movement (REM) state, during which we experience a created reality through our imagination.2 But this is not the only way the REM state can be accessed.

We can access the REM state whenever we focus inward and activate the imagination - even during wakefulness. We enter it when we daydream, when we enter hypnotic trance, and yes, you guessed it, when we worry.

In the REM state we become more suggestible, or programmable. To put it another way, we become better able to learn on an unconscious level. During therapeutic hypnosis we narrow our focus of attention and activate the imagination in order to make changes in the way we respond to life, both emotionally and behaviourally. But we can also program ourselves inadvertently - through the self-hypnosis of worry.

Many people never consider that misuse of the imagination through unhelpful worrying is a form of self-hypnosis, or that it has the potential to program them to feel even more negative. But imagine this...

That horrible next-Wednesday feeling

While at work, Kathy is told she has to make a presentation to 100 clients next week. Instantly she goes inward, imagining the horror of it all. She pictures herself - no, scrub that, she experiences herself - in the future, freezing, shaking, even crying.

Now every time she remembers 'next Wednesday', she feels sick. She imagines forgetting the words and looking foolish in front of the clients. She does this again and again, perhaps 100 times before the actual presentation. She is conditioning herself through this repeated use of her imagination.

Lo and behold, Wednesday rolls around. And true to form, Kathy is genuinely terrified. The constant worrying has programmed her to feel disempowered during the actual event.

I've had frightened presenters tell me the only time they didn't feel scared was when they were called upon to speak all of a sudden and didn't have time to worry about it. In other words, they were prevented from programming their response through repeated negative self-hypnosis.

If Kathy had repeatedly imagined next Wednesday while deeply relaxed, she would have programmed her body and mind to associate speaking with feeling empowered and calm. We program ourselves by associating the imagined situation with the emotions we feel while imagining. And we can do that in ways that help us or harm us.

But let's not get carried away.

Some worry is vital

Some worrying, in balance, helps us and others. If a friend has been boozing all night and tells me they're "fine to drive home", I'm certainly going to worry about that. And that's what worry is for. The worry will prompt me to act and stop them getting behind the wheel any way I can.

Notice that the worrying I've just described leads to resolution, and therefore can simply go once it's served its purpose. People who never worry, who never use their imagination to see what might possibly go wrong, can be brought down by their own impulsivity.3 They, and others, would benefit if they learned to worry a bit more.

So we need to worry. But worrying should serve us, and not the other way around. Continual worrying - continually ruminating without resolution or hope - can have serious consequences.4

The role of worrying in depression

Going inward and using the imagination to construct miserable scenarios about the past and scary, hopeless imaginings about the future fuels depression.

When cows 'ruminate' (in the original sense of the word), they regurgitate cud, chew it some more, swallow it, digest it further, regurgitate it again, chew it some more... and so forth. The key thing to notice here is that rumination is part of the process of digestion. When we ruminate, we too go over the same stuff over and over - but we never actually process it.

By "process it", I mean either:

  • actually solve the problem in a practical way, or
  • reframe the problem so that it no longer bothers us.

Once we do either or both of the above, the worry can be 'switched off'.

It's long been known that depressed people mull over stuff, but don't actually problem-solve through either of the above methods.5 And so, bit by bit, they lose energy and motivation as their unresolved worries from the day start to damage their sleep quality at night.6

But what about the nature of the worries?

The role of emotional extremism

Depressed people tend to worry in catastrophic, all-or-nothing, absolutist ways.7 So while we are feeling depressed, things seem absolutely this or completely that. Listen to a depressed person speak (which is, of course, a reflection of how they think and imagine) and you'll often hear phrases like:

  • "Nothing ever works out for me!"
  • "I have absolutely nothing good in my life."
  • "I'll make a complete idiot of myself!"
  • "Everyone will hate me!"

Life is subtle, complex, and full of diverse phenomena. There are many shades and gradations to experience, but absolutist thought misses all that out. As people worry less they begin to catastrophize less and think in more subtle, less extremist ways.

So we can exhaust ourselves as well as condition ourselves through the negative self-hypnosis that is worrying. But how can we do less of it?

Tip one: Don't try not to worry

That's right. It might seem like great advice to try not to worry, but research has found that trying to suppress negative thoughts can actually make them rebound more strongly.8

Rather than trying to suppress worries, mindfulness exercises sit calmly with the worries and observe them. This tends to be much more effective in dissolving the worry.

Likewise, you don't have to always try to be positive. Overly positive thinking can, like depressive thinking, be too all or nothing and place undue pressure on us.

Speaking of which...

Tip two: Challenge inner absolutism.

Research shows that the more helpless a person feels the more they communicate and therefore think and imagine in absolute ways.  Learn to sit outside your worries and observe them, but also deconstruct them. Do you find yourself imagining the absolute worst possible outcome?

For someone who feels helpless, it's not that "some people will take a while to get to know me" but that "everyone will hate me instantly!"It's not that "things might be a bit tough financially for a while" but that "I will end up completely alone and on the street!"

If you tend to imagine in these simplistic and binary ways, take a moment to write down some more moderate ideas. Challenge the tyranny of absolutism. What are the subtle shades of reality that you had not been considering?

As well as spotting and challenging absolutist thinking, you can also change the focus of your worries.

Tip three: Be solution focused

Cows might ruminate all day long, but they do eventually absorb and digest the nutrients. In that way, we could say that their rumination is solution focused.

Imagining how problems will damage you in the future, or even imagining problems that don't exist now but might in the future, is one thing. But imagining these problems without ever devising plans and strategies to overcome them is another.

What are the actual steps you can take to overcome your problems? What are the different ways you can think about problems to reframe them into challenges? Is there a sensible person you can talk to who is pragmatic enough to help you devise strategies to thrive more?

Get into the habit of being solution focused. Some people seem to spend much of life in their own heads, but we are all meant for action.

Tip four: Get active

I know I said that thought suppression tends to backfire when we're worried about something, but weirdly enough distraction is not the same as thought suppression.

Trying not to focus on worries isn't the same as genuinely focusing on something else.

If I go for a jog I can still worry while I'm doing it. But ifI'm doing a more demanding activity, something that doesn't leave me time for any rumination, then I take a much-needed break from worry.

Playing competitive sports, looking after family, or really focusing on others when socializing can all help. Recent research also found that being in nature for just two hours a week (even if that time is split up over the week) has great benefits for mind and body.9

The worst thing for worry is to do nothing else. If I sit at home all day and do nothing but worry, that worry becomes massively magnified. And have you ever noticed how big worries become in the wee small hours of the night?

Time for some organization.

Tip five: Take control

Sometimes I'll ask my hypnotherapy clients to organize their worry. Sounds weird, right?

I might ask them to set aside 15 minutes of their day as "worry time". They must set their alarm to go off when it is time to start worrying, and again when the time is up. During this time they are to do nothing else except focus on their worries.

Between the designated worry times they are to save their worries up. If they catch themselves worrying at other times, they can remind themselves to save those worries for the designated worry time.

When people start to do this, often a strange thing happens. Clients tend to find it very difficult to only worry. They often find they can worry for maybe 10 solid minutes, but then their attention starts to wander.

This is one of those exercises which seems unlikely to work but actually works surprisingly well. So if you're going through a period of worrying more than usual, give it a try.

And finally...

Tip six: Use your imagination for your own good

Your imagination is a powerful tool that wasn't meant for continual self-upset. Excessive worrying is a misuse of the imagination.

Learn to use the power of imagination to develop mindsets that help you live a happier, healthier life and find greater perspective. It's amazing how quickly you can decondition a worry simply by feeling relaxed as you think about it.

The hypnotic use of your imagination can help you heal and thrive. This amazing, therapeutic tool is your heritage and birthright as a human being.

Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Thinking Skills