It happens to all of us: life gets stressful sometimes. Many of my clients will tell me their mind “won’t shut down” or it keeps “going in circles.” This can interfere with our work, with our sleep, and can leave us feeling either keyed up or exhausted a lot of the time.
Sometimes distracting ourselves works. Talking with friends or loved ones, watching TV, reading a book, listening to music, doing something physical or athletic, all of these are good options to try. In fact these are typically the first round of suggestions I offer with my clients because they help.
I’d like to suggest some additional techniques that have been proven to help. These are all based on cognitive theory or mindfulness, and I like to give multiple suggestions at once so my clients can try them all and see what works best. None of these works for everyone, but at least one has a great chance or working for you. When your worry gets excessive, give these a try.
1. Thought Stopping
This is a technique that is helpful to folks, and it is a way to train our brain. It’s very simple: when you notice yourself obsessing over something say the word “Stop!” to yourself out loud. Yell it if you want to, but say it out loud. Your mind will actually obey you. You’ll get better at it the more you try it, and a mental command will do the trick.
2. Mindful Acceptance
This technique is the opposite of the one above, so I recommend trying one of these thoroughly before trying the other. There are entire books written on mindfulness, not to mention audio CDs, groups and classes, but I’ll just give one simple technique. When you notice yourself worrying, simply say to yourself, “I’m noticing I’m thinking about ____.” Do this without judgment, approval or disapproval. It’s as if you’re watching some leaves float by on a stream and you are noticing each leaf. Many times our thoughts simply want to be acknowledged, and then as we disengage from them they will float down the stream. Many folks dedicate about 10-20 minutes a day just sitting and noticing/acknowledging what they are thinking. What a difference it can make!
3. Schedule Time to Worry
One option I suggest to those I work with is to simply set time aside to worry. Beginning surgeons do this, I’ve heard. Performing an operation is a stressful exercise, and before they begin they will give themselves, say, 10 seconds to completely feel their anxiety, and then they stop worrying and begin surgery. If you know you have scheduled yourself to worry as much as you want from 5p – 5:10p today, then if you start worrying earlier remind yourself you have set aside time to do that later.
4. Give Equal Time
When we worry we tend to catastrophize. This involves imagining either the worst possible outcome, or our perceived inability to handle it. We may think we are simply planning for the worst, but there’s a difference between being prepared for something and obsessing about it occurring. The more we think this way the more realistic and likely the thing becomes in our minds, and our thoughts will go toward it like grooves on a record. I tell clients if you’re going to spend time thinking about the worst, then you have to give equal time thinking about the best possible outcome. Make yourself do it. This may feel less realistic initially, but in reality it’s probably as equally possible as the worst outcome. We also feel a bit better and more capable in the process.
5. Breathe Correctly
This can’t be overstated. Worry adds stress not just to our minds, but also to our bodies. We tend to breathe more shallowly and rapidly from our chests instead of our diaphragms, taking in too much oxygen which encourages us to stay anxious or stressed and can even lead to panic. Try breathing from your diaphragm (it feels like it’s coming from your stomach) and breathe deeply, both inhaling and exhaling. Try inhaling to the count of 4, then exhaling to the count of 4, and repeat this for four minutes. Four minutes is about how long it takes to restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Doing this will physically relax you and give you time to reassure yourself that you’ve lived through difficult things before and you can handle this.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful to those of us that worry, and don’t we all sometimes? If you have questions, concerns, or would like to ask specific questions please feel free to Contact Me directly. Also, be aware that while there is some very good help out there, in some cases it’s simply best to seek out a qualified mental health professional.