“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”– Erma Bombeck
One of the most common, daily destructive habits many of us get swept up in is worrying—and like all not-so-great habits, the habit of worrying can be hard to stop in its tracks. Sure, sometimes worry can help us—shielding us from danger or sharpening our focus when we need it most. If you’re worried about catching the flu, for example, you might wash your hands more frequently or get a flu shot.
But more often, worry becomes harmful when we don’t deal with it directly and it festers and grows—becoming a stress-fueling enemy paralyzing us from taking action, seeping into every corner of our lives, and sapping the joy and energy we naturally feel. “Most of the time, the events we spend worrying about never turn out to be as bad as we thought,” says Adam Perlman, M.D., integrative medicine expert and meQuilibrium’s Chief Medical Officer. “We therefore have spent time in distress for no good reason—and that is time we can never get back.”
Here are three ways worry takes over—and how you can gain back control.
1. Worry is your enemy when…You don’t pinpoint what you’re worried about.
We can all recognize the symptoms of worry: agitation, stomach aches, insomnia, or simply a vague sense of unease. These symptoms aren’t just unpleasant: they’re important warning signals from your body. And if you don’t figure out what’s behind your worry, these symptoms are likely to worsen.
Try this: Treat your worry like a customer service issue. When a customer calls with a problem, you don’t scream back at them (if you want to keep them around). You apologize for the trouble and try to find the root of the issue. Treat worry like a customer—what is it trying to tell you? Determining the truth behind the feelings is the first step to easing your worry symptoms.
Read more on the use of painful, difficult emotions.
2. Worry is your enemy when…You ignore it.
Knowing what you’re worried about is only half the battle—it’s no use if you stuff that information down and hope it will just go away. Without a plan to address the worry head on, you may default to more destructive behaviors, such as overeating or overspending, trapping you in a harmful cycle.
Try this: Trap, map, and zap your worry. Instead of stuffing it down, bring the emotion of worry to the surface, acknowledging how worried you’re really feeling. Then, map the emotion back to a thought that has caused it. For example, “I messed up that report at work and will surely get fired.” Once you’ve found the thought, zap it by testing if it’s true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought really true, or am I overreacting?” Nine times out of 10, you’re worrying more than the situation warrants.
Read more on how to Trap It, Map It, Zap It.
3. Worry is your enemy when……It takes a toll on your body. Worry doesn’t just affect our minds—it affects our bodies, too. “When we worry,” says Dr. Perlman, “we release various chemicals in the body that can do things like raise our blood pressure, increase inflammation, or disrupt our sleep.”
Try this: Focus on your body. When worry twists you up into knots, one of the fastest ways out of it is to pay attention to your body. Where do you physically feel the worry? Is your chest tight, is your stomach in knots, or does your back ache? Take a moment to scan your body and find the tension spots.
Unravel the knots by practicing soft-belly breathing: Sit quietly in a chair with your eyes closed, inhale through your nose for a count of five, pause for five, and exhale for five. When your body is calm and your mind is clear, take a look at your worry through fresh eyes. What can you do, right now, to address the source of your problem?
While worry can sometimes signal a problem that needs tending, more often worry is the result of our thoughts jumping to all kinds of conclusions. The next time you’re derailed by worry, ask yourself if you can be sure that what you’re fearing is really going to happen. Mark Twain may have said it best: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”