What to do when worry takes over
When you’re worrying you aren’t really here. You think you are, you think you’re so on the ball that you’re on top of every possible outcome of a situation. But, actually, you aren’t here in the space you’re stood in, in the same timeframe as the people around you.
You’re in the conversation you had with a friend earlier that day. Or you’re in a meeting at work yesterday. Or you’re walking down a street in town last week. You’re in the past, remembering something that happened, going over it, looking for clues, wondering what you could have done differently, second guessing what other people meant by their words, their glance, their body language.
Or you’re in the future. You’re going through possible scenarios for events and conversations that haven’t happened yet, thinking through all the different ways they could go wrong, how you could mess up, what calamity could befall you or your loved ones, how stressed and scared you could feel. You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen but you have all kinds of ideas that seem very plausible, very real and you’re ready with your response of ‘Yes but what if…’ for anyone who challenges you. Including yourself.
If you’re not someone who worries and you’re reading this I expect it sounds rather stressful and a little bit crazy to think like this. And you’d be right, it’s no fun worrying about what did happen and what might happen. It’s not logical, it often doesn’t make sense and yet once our worrier minds spiral off it feels like we’ve lost some control over our own minds.
That’s what it feels like, but it isn’t actually true. We do have a say in what our minds do and what we give our attention to. Yes, in a matter of milliseconds our brains have fastforwarded to imagine a range of awful possible scenarios, so it doesn’t feel like it would be easy to stop that. However, once we become aware of where our minds have run off to, once we notice we’re spiralling into dark, scary thoughts, that’s when we can hop into the driving seat of our brains and reclaim the steering wheel.
When we recognise that we’re going over and over something that already happened, or what if-ing what’s yet to happen, that’s when we can decide to bring our thoughts out of the past or future and into the here and now. This real and true moment, right here. And it’s at this point that we start to slow down the spiralling brain, ease the stressful feelings and reduce our worries.
Because when we’re directing our energy, our focus and our attention on what’s real right now we aren’t worrying. We aren’t what if-ing. We aren’t second guessing. We’re in this present moment. And then this moment. And then this moment.
If you’re a big worrier I know this might sound glib and you may be thinking to yourself that I don’t get just how difficult it is to stop worrying. I do get it, really, I do. I have spent far too many years of my life worrying and being absent from what was actually going on around me because I was lost in my thoughts, imagining a million different scenarios. It’s learning how to drag my mind away from the what ifs, to catch it as it spirals and bring it back to the present, that enables me to reduce how much I worry and spend less time stressing over things that have never happened, and never did happen. It takes effort, it takes practice but, my word, it’s worth it. You are worth it.
How do you stop your thoughts spiralling off into worry? First of all, this is not about stopping your worry. Tell yourself not to think of a pink crocodile with black polka dots and all you can think of is a pink crocodile with black polka dots. This is about redirecting your attention to focus on the present moment, not about trying to block out your worrying thoughts. By refocusing your attention you give your brain a rest from worrying because you’re not focused on the worry.
So, how do you do it? You practice mindfulness.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness in different situations for a variety of reasons. Here I want to share with you one technique you can practice any time you find yourself going over and over something that has already happened, or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. It’s simple, it works for whatever in particular you worry about, you don’t need any ‘things’ to do it and no-one around you need know what you’re doing.
What to do
• First bring your attention from wherever it is to your feet. Feel the pressure of your feet on the ground. Pay attention to each foot, how your weight is shared between them, how your feet feel, whether they’re in socks or shoes. There’s no need to judge your feet, form an opinion or change anything about them. You’re simply noticing your feet, giving them your attention rather than your worries.
• If you were deep in worry when you began this exercise you will find your mind pulling back to your previous thoughts, returning to those worries. However many times this happens, when you notice, simply bring your attention back to your feet or whatever part of this exercise you were last doing. Don’t get cross at yourself, that won’t help you feel better, just notice you’re in your worrying thoughts and move your attention to this exercise.
• Now move your attention to what you can hear. It could be people talking, traffic going by, stairs creaking, a radio playing – whatever the sounds are notice each one in turn. You don’t need to identify who’s making the sound or imagine what could be going on to make the noise, you’re simply noticing what you can hear, that’s all.
• Next you’re going to bring your focus to what you can see. Name them out loud or silently to yourself – red door, cracked pavement, motorbike, white trainers, lamppost, street sign, for example – one by one. When your mind darts off to your worry again, bring it back to noticing what you can see around you.
• You can move through these three senses, taking them each in turn, as many times as you like. You can give your attention to something you can feel, then one sound you can hear, then name one item you can see, then back to what you can feel again. However many times you feel you need to run through this mindfulness exercise is up to you, as many times as is needed to soothe yourself and calm your mind.
There are lots of other ways you can practice mindfulness to ease your stress, calm your mind and spend less of your time worrying. Rather than overload you with information I want to give you just one tool here for you to try.
While you can use mindfulness techniques to help you in particular moments, incorporating mindfulness into your everyday life empowers you to spend more time in the present, noticing what’s going on around you and finding enjoyment in what’s happening in your life, and less time in the past or future, worrying, stressing and missing out on the good stuff that’s going on in the present. Practising mindfulness builds your resilience, it makes you better able to cope with worry and stress.