How I Trained Myself to Worry Better
March 1, 2018
We’re in a golden age of tracking: We track our steps, our sleep, our time on Facebook and other sites we deem “productivity killers” (looking at you, Instagram). But one thing we still don’t track or think about much: the amount of time we spend worrying.
It makes sense—it’s not like a wrist tracker or Google Chrome extension could measure or sense the time we spend worrying about the future. But if we had something that could track our worry time? I know I'd probably end each day with the 10,000-step equivalent.
Congrats, you worried for a solid 3 hours total today!
We spend a lot of time worrying. A 2017 survey of 2,000 millennials showed that the average respondent spent the equivalent of 63 full days a year worried and stressed out. That’s like June and July—all lost to worry.
There are many reasons why we worry, but one of the main reasons is simply because we can. Unlike all other animals on the planet, we have the power to look into the future—with all its uncertainty and fuzziness—and reflect. And that stirs up the worry machine as we try to figure out what’s going to happen and how we’ll react.
It can feel productive, and studies show that we often believe worrying helps prevent negative outcomes or helps us find a better way of doing things.
But here’s the thing: Most of what we worry about never happens. A study from the University of Cincinnati showed that 85 percent of what we worry about never actually happens. And the 15 percent of things that do happen? The study showed we’re typically able to handle it better than expected or it teaches us an important lesson, according to the Huffington Post.
Most of what we worry about never happens.
This paradox of worry—so all-consuming yet unproductive—is summed up best by Mark Twain, who famously said: “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Ease the Worry
So, let’s all just stop worrying, OK?
Just kidding—I know firsthand it’s not that easy. I’ve been told to just “stop worrying” for years and, well, it just doesn’t happen like that. And reaching inbox zero with our worries is actually impossible. We’re wired to have some level of worry to protect ourselves—it’s why we look both ways before crossing the streets.
I’ve been told to just “stop worrying” for years and, well, it just doesn’t happen like that.
But the constant worrying about things that haven’t happened or things that aren’t even on the menu for the near future? We can take steps to curb overthinking.
Through trial-and-error, many late-night Google searches of “how to actually stop worrying,” and talking to other worry-inclined people, I’ve found a few techniques that help me ease worry and cut back on those 63 full days of dread.
Before we get into tips, it’s important to recognize that “worry” and “anxiety” are close friends but very different psychological states. Psychology Today offers a great breakdown of the differences. If you feel overwhelmed by your worries or in anxiety territory, it might be time to seek help from a professional. As someone who worries and has anxiety, I can’t recommend therapy enough.
But now, some tips for the casual worry wart:
Turn Your ‘What If’ Into ‘I Can’
Even if we know most of our worries won’t come to fruition, it still can feel hard to let go of our “what if” scenarios. What can help: Refocusing from the “what if” to the “I can.” By that I mean “I can problem solve” or “I can handle it.”
Dwelling on issues isn’t productive—but problem solving is. “Ask yourself what steps you can take to learn from a mistake or avoid a future problem,” Amy Morin, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist, explains in Psychology Today. “Ask yourself what you can do about it.”
But some slippery worries don’t come with a solution—they’re so far in the future, we can’t even take steps in the now. In those cases, it’s helpful to release a little control and focus on “I can handle it.”
It’s a method that works for Joymarie Parker, 30, the co-host of the Joblogues podcast and a self-proclaimed worrier. Parker says when she switches from trying to control the future to trusting she can handle whatever comes, it helps her redirect her thoughts.
“When you can release the need for things to happen one way and accept however they happen, you’ll thrive and you’ll survive in that,” Parker says. “I like to think, ‘This can go really well or not so well, but I’m OK with both of those outcomes.’ And a lot of times when we worry it turns out to be nothing or it was manageable. Whatever happens, we always come out of it on the other side.”
"Whatever happens, we always come out of it on the other side."Joymarie Parker
Set a Time to Worry
Setting a designated time to worry can help you cut back on overthinking and recognize how much time you give those might-happen-but-probably-won’t-but-here’s-what-I’d-do-if-it-did thoughts. It’s a great way to ease into cutting back on worrying without forcing yourself to go cold turkey.
“Stewing on problems for long periods of time isn’t productive, but brief reflection can be helpful,” Morin explains.
Morin recommends setting aside 20 minutes of “thinking time” each day. “During this time, let yourself worry, ruminate, or mull over whatever you want,” she writes. “Then, when the time is up, move onto something more productive.”
I’ve found having a confined time to worry makes me prioritize my worries. It helps me weed out the highly irrational (What if I broke my leg tomorrow?) and focus on the worries that I can act on (What if I don’t finish that project by tomorrow?).
I’ve found having a confined time to worry makes me prioritize my worries.
A set time to think also helps me stay “worry-lite” throughout the rest of the day. If a worry pops up outside of my scheduled time, I swipe it aside like a bad push notification and tell myself to “revisit during thinking time.” And when I do get to my thinking time? Half the time I find myself forgetting what nagged at me earlier in the day—another cue it wasn’t important to begin with.
Call Your Worries Out
Like I said earlier, we tend to love tracking our habits and finding ways to optimize our time. But worrying essentially goes against that goal to get more done in less time. Reminding myself of how unproductive it is to worry actually helps me calm it down.
As much as it can feel like worry is motivating me, or it shows that I care about something, I know 99 percent of the time it’s stopping me from actually living my life. When a worry pops up, I like to challenge it with a “Is this useful?” It helps me connect back to the present me—the “me” who actually has things to do and people to see—and it helps me dismiss the worries that don’t serve me.
I’ve accepted that I’ll never “stop worrying”—I’m a proud worry wart for life. But like my FitBit shows me how much time I spend sitting, noticing my worries helps me see the time I lose to irrational “what ifs.” Now, I'm starting to reclaim that time.