Worrying is unhelpful and can be detrimental to your health. Here’s how to set yourself free
Are you a worrier? If you’re constantly thinking something bad will happen, you’re not alone. But if worrying is taking up a great deal of time and emotion, you need to take action. Just think of all the time that’s been wasted worrying about things which didn’t even happen!
So what exactly is going on when we worry? “People worry as a response to a fear, but the two concepts are quite different,” says Chanelle Sowden, psychotherapeutic counsellor (chanellesowden.co.uk) “Fear is usually an involuntary reaction to a fact. Worry, however, is a choice, usually based on our personal interpretations or on vague, possible outcomes that may only be in our imagination.”
Counsellor Marie O’Sullivan (sparkleshimmerandshine.co.uk) agrees that worry can often have very little to do with reality. “When we worry, we are either ruminating about past events or anticipating catastrophic outcomes in the future. Either way, we are not fully focused in the present and this can hinder our happiness.”
But for some, the need to worry is ingrained, and it can feel ‘wrong’ not to. Maybe it feels like you are giving out the message you aren’t bothered if you aren’t worrying, or you think it helps you stay alert if something should go wrong. You might feel like it protects you from unwanted surprises, or you subconsciously invite others to reassure you, cut you some slack and even do something for you. “It might even be an unconscious pattern that’s been modelled to us by a parent as normal, unavoidable or helpful,” says Chanelle. “But as an ex-worrier myself, and someone who still has to remind herself how to let go of worry in new situations, I can categorically say that worry is not helpful.
“In the areas of my life that I’ve released worry, I feel more freedom, more in control and more helpful and available to others. Worry and stress are negative, threaten our health, take up energy, override other thoughts, affect our appetite, mood, sleep, relationships and take their toll on our nervous system. Worrying closes us down, disempowers us and clouds our thinking. Being calm, positive minded, open and available to help others is much more helpful than worrying.”
And if you think it’s a helpful way to show you care about someone, or frequently reply to people who tell you to stop worrying, take heed. You’re actually doing the exact opposite: “Worrying is not caring,” says Chanelle. “No matter what you’ve been told or what was modelled to you growing up, worry isn’t an effective way to make sure things go OK or to show love. Caring is positive and helpful but when we’re in a state of worry or fear we tend to tense up, become less affectionate, feel helpless, frustrated, go inwards or need reassurance. Being in a state of fear is arguably the opposite of love as it limits our ability to attune to others or be helpful. Worry is focusing on something negative and is unhelpful.”
You are probably damaging your health, too. Tension and worry could, in fact, be causing some of your physical ailments, as it did for Marie. “My worry manifested as shoulder pain,” she says. “At one point, I found it difficult to rotate my neck. I did not associate these physical symptoms with my habit of worrying at the time. Afterwards, I did a lot of research about stress management. I learned that it is very common to have psychosomatic pain when we experience chronic stress. Worrying activates our fight-or-flight response and it can have a severe impact on our bodies as well as our minds.”
Chanelle says taking note of the following four points will help change your pattern of behaviour
1. There will always be something to worry about. Thinking you’ll be OK if you could just know someone likes you or if you could just get that pay rise or not get rejected or know that your child will enjoy something is never ending. There will always be something to worry about and always be something to be grateful for and it’s your choice which you focus on. Your focus is unlikely to have much impact on the outcome, but it will greatly affect the joy you and those around you experience.
2. Stretch your comfort zone. Avoidance or anticipating something bad strengthens the worry pattern within us. The more we subject ourselves to what we’re worried about the less power it holds. Facing our fears may require us to speak to someone, ask for help, break something down into smaller chunks, or find a mentor. Whatever it takes I highly recommend that you face it rather than avoid it.
3. Learn how to calm yourself. It’s a skill we’re meant to learn as infants. We can’t calm ourselves when we’re first born, so we outsource this skill and let our mother soothe, regulate and reassure us until we can do it ourselves. If you’ve not mastered it yet there’s still time! Practices like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, massage, even chanting, gardening or baking are all ways of replicating the calm, repetitive qualities of grounding ourselves back into our bodies and back into the moment. The key is repetition, doing it repeatedly until it’s wired into our nervous system.
4. Identify what’s a fact and what’s just your perception. I always find it amazing how two different people can have such different ways of viewing the same situation. If you are stuck in a negative pattern over something, spend more time with people that have a more positive way of seeing that thing.
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