Ever had one of those nights when you can’t sleep because you can’t stop worrying about something? You’ve followed your usual evening ritual, brushed your teeth, applied your creams, maybe read in bed for half an hour, and then the eyelids start to drop, you reach over and switch off the light, close your eyes and……nothing. Time drifts by and then a thought pops into your head about something you have to do at work tomorrow. You make a mental note to deal with it in the morning and roll over. But the more you try not to worry about it the more it leaps back into your thoughts. And then you start worrying that you’ll never get to sleep. Finally, an hour later, if you’re lucky, you succumb to sheer exhaustion and fall asleep. Until you wake in the middle of the night and repeat the whole process. Aaargh!
The $64,000 question is, “If constant worrying can make us feel so bad why do we keep doing it?” We think that worrying will help us avoid future things from getting out of hand but we achieve nothing except a lousy night’s sleep, muscle tension, and indigestion.
To break the worry cycle, the first thing you have to do is give yourself permission to postpone worrying until a more suitable time. When you’re lying in bed being bombarded by worries jot them down and then later, preferably when you’re in a good mood as this will promote realistic and creative thinking, spend 15 minutes addressing each worry. Postponing worrying serves four valuable functions. First, it prevents your worries from interfering with work or other activities that demand your full attention. Second, by switching your attention away from the worry you’ll start to realise that you have more control over your thoughts than you think. Third, by the time you return to thinking about the worry you’ll probably discover that it’s not such a problem after all. And finally, keeping a record of your worries may highlight patterns of thoughts or circumstances that routinely cause you worry.
When addressing each worry challenge how rational and realistic it is. People who make a habit of worrying tend to either overestimate the possibility that bad things will happen or else they underestimate their own ability at handling these things. You can break these bad thinking habits and develop a more balanced and healthier perspective of your worries by asking yourself the following questions and taking the appropriate action:
- What exactly is it that worries me?
- Is the problem my problem? If not, don’t worry about it.
- Do I have control over the problem? If not, don’t worry about it.
- What is the probability that my worry will actually happen? If it won’t happen, don’t worry about it.
- If the problem is my problem, is within my control, and will happen, I will take action to solve it. When have I successfully handled problems like this before? I will brainstorm as many possible solutions I can think of while focusing on the things I can change and not on circumstances or other people which I can’t change.
- What encouraging words would I say to a friend who had this worry?
Finally, if your worry is unsolvable because either it’s not your problem (you are worried about your daughter’s failing marriage), it’s uncontrollable (you are worried whether it will rain during the picnic), or it can’t be resolved right away (you are worried about your factory closing in two years’ time), focus on managing your own emotions. Try the following techniques:
- Mindfulness: Because worrying is usually focused on what might happen in the future, mindfulness, the practice of simply observing your thoughts and feelings moment by moment and non-judgmentally, keeps your attention in the present and thus worry-free.
- Social support: Talking to friends about your worry can help as long as you don’t get stuck in shuffle mode where you replay over and over again your problem.
- Exercise: This is one of the best ways I know of for burning off pent-up anxious feelings and for gaining perspective about a worry – after a run my worry never seems quite so urgent or big an issue.
- Relax: Because worriers tend to be in a constant state of tension making them susceptible to physical maladies such as nausea, fatigue, sleeplessness, and irritable bowel syndrome, it is important that you regularly try to relax using music, meditation, time outdoors, or leisure activities.
- Accept your emotions: When you worry you can become hyper-vigilant of your own feelings causing you to worry further about your unpleasant emotions. You can question, “Why do I feel like this? What’s wrong with me?” At such times simply observe your feelings as a part of being human without attaching undue importance to them.
This week’s challenge asks you to keep a list of any worries that you have been obsessively replaying over and over in your mind. You may have experienced these worries while sleeping, at work, or when at home with your family. The following questions will help you analyse and deal with any of your worries.
1. Describe your worry
2. Is your worry solvable? Is it your problem and is it within your control?
3. If the worry is solvable, what solutions can you think of?
4. If the worry is unsolvable, how did you manage your emotions?
What is a worry that you wrestled with this week? And how did you resolve it?
Please leave your comment below.
(Selected comments will appear anonymously in my upcoming book The Happiness Challenge.)