Learn how to move forward with less stress in the first part of this 10-day meditation course (full course available only to Headspace subscribers).
Most thoughts, emotions, and anxiousness caused by worry are negative, imagining worst-case scenarios, anticipated threats, or scenarios that reflect our own lack of self-worth.
For instance, the worry could be that someone we’re meeting won’t like us; or that an upcoming flight will lead to an emergency landing; or that the nagging pain we’ve noticed might well be a serious health condition. Most of the time, our worries don’t pan out. That’s because worry is often invented by the mind, and is rarely rooted in fact or truth. Eventually, we come to realize that worrying about the future doesn’t prevent tomorrow’s troubles, it just robs today of its joy. As an old quote goes: “Worry is the interest you pay on a debt you may not owe.”
Occasional anxiety over the future is a normal part of life. In fact, our brains are evolutionarily wired to worry: our cave-dwelling ancestors, who imagined the worst when they heard leaves rustle, had better odds of surviving a predator by being in this state of constant alert. So worrying, to some extent, is a natural part of life — we worry about paying a bill, or how a first date might turn out, or if the weather might ruin a planned BBQ.
But it’s when the “what ifs” are persistent and run rampant — attaching themselves to every possible outcome — that worry becomes a chronic source of anxiety, and can lead to insomnia, headaches, stomach problems, and more. At its most extreme, worry can be paralyzing, interfering with how we show up in everyday life, and preventing us from taking action, even if it’s simply to cook dinner for friends (because … maybe it won’t taste good, etc.). Chronic worrying can also indicate Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), so it’s always worth seeking a healthcare professional’s advice if worrying has become a preoccupying mindset.
Harvard researcher and lecturer Shawn Achor writes in his book The Happiness Advantage, “Adversities, no matter what they are, simply don’t hit us as hard as we think they will. Our fear of consequences is always worse than the consequences themselves.”
If you notice you're caught up in a worrying storyline, know that you have the power to break the cycle. When it comes to short-circuiting the anxiety loop that worry puts us in, meditation can be a great ally. With practice, we learn to step away from the thoughts and emotions that entertain worst-case scenarios; instead, we develop an awareness that allows us to not only see what our mind is inventing, but to also be less triggered by worry. We are essentially training the mind to be calmer, more at ease, and less reactive.
One such tactic is to acknowledge the presence of such thoughts in the mind, as uncomfortable as that may be. A trick to accomplish this is to think of your worry as a movie playing in your mind. As a viewer, you are there to sit and watch the film — not change the film in any way, even though you might naturally want to rewrite the script or silence the film altogether. Hitting “mute” might seem appealing, but it doesn’t allow us to see the worry for what it really is: another thought among many, many thoughts.
By simply watching the mind, we can start to feel more at ease with our feelings and begin to ease the emotions and physical sensations that may arise when we worry. In time, we discover that we are unfazed by things that would usually set off a bombardment of negative thinking. Meditation is a tool that, if used consistently, will help us rewire our thinking, aiding us to break the worry cycle.
For some worriers, anxious thoughts are fueled by an underlying belief about worrying — that it’s somehow protective, will help us avoid bad things, or prepare us for the worst. Worry might keep our minds busy, but not in a constructive way. So we owe it ourselves to break the worry habit and start living.
1. Schedule “worry time” on your calendar. It sounds counterintuitive, even a little silly, but setting aside 20 or 30 minutes each day to focus on your worries is a first step toward containing them. Studies, including one at Penn State University, found that those who scheduled time to worry showed a significant decrease in anxiety in 2 to 4 weeks — plus they slept better.
Your worry period should be the same time every day — first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. During this designated but limited worry time, you can worry as much as you like, going down the mental rabbit holes your mind loves to create. But the discipline here — and the test of willpower — is that the worries are not only indulged in this time, but left there. They are not allowed to spill into the rest of the day.
Of course, worries will inevitably arise outside of this time slot, but that’s when to practice mindfulness: acknowledge the thought, but don’t indulge it; simply let it go and refuse to allow your mind to go there. Busy yourselves at such times with a task, a conversation, or some entertainment.
Learning to limit anxious thoughts shows that you actually have more control over them than you think. You’re training your mind not to dwell on worries at all hours of the day or night. Plus, you’ll have more available hours in the day (not to mention energy) for productive thinking.
2. Practice meditation. Another skill for learning how to stop worrying about the future — or obsessing about the past — is a regular meditation practice.
General meditation research shows that mindfulness training can reduce anxiety for those with anxiety disorders. One study showed that 30 days of Headspace resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience. What’s more, people who used the Headspace app for just 10 days experienced a 7.5% increase in satisfaction with life. It’s clear that regularly setting aside a few minutes — even one minute — to let go, breathe, and recharge can go a long way toward improving mental health.
By sitting quietly and focusing either on the breath or on the physical sensations of the chair beneath you or the feet on the floor, you’ll ground yourself in the present moment, allowing for a greater sense of calm.
Meditation isn’t about pushing worries away, clearing the mind, or stopping thought — that’s not possible. But over time, we can train the mind to observe our thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. We gently note them, rather than reacting to them, and then let them go. When we take a step back and observe them in that way, we realize that our thoughts are temporary; that they don’t define us, and we are not our thoughts.
3. Learn to distinguish between solvable and unsolvable worries.
Productive, solvable worries are those you can act on right away. For instance, if you’re concerned about your finances, you can draw up a spreadsheet and a monthly budget to rein in your spending. If it’s high cholesterol and your health, you can lay off the fast food, make better choices at the grocery store, and start exercising.
If a worry is solvable, chart a plan of action that starts small. Focusing on things within our reach takes us away from creating a disaster scenario in the mind. Try a prompt like, What’s one part of one step I can take to get started?
Unproductive, unsolvable worries are those for which there’s no corresponding action: You can’t control the weather for your vacation, or prevent your company’s round of layoffs (though you can update your resume and polish your profesional profile), nor can you force someone to ask you out on a date.
Uncertainty is one of the hardest things to feel comfortable with, especially for those with anxiety. But life is unpredictable, and learning to accept, and even lean in to our fear of the unknown, can make a difference on our emotional well-being.
So, if you’re focusing on a situation that’s out of your hands, that’s always going to be tough. What’s tougher? Resisting it or trying to control it.
Meditation can help us become more at ease with uncertainty, and less stressed when things are not in your control. When we let go of what we can’t control, we can focus on what’s actually in front of us. Life can flow with a little more ease this way.
4. Write down your worries. One powerful way to help us break the cycle of worry is to log each and every worrying thought that pops into our mind. Examining worries written on paper — rather than mulling them over in your head — can help you gain a more balanced perspective.
Committing your emotions to paper seems like it would fuel anxiety, but according to a University of Chicago study published in the journal Science, it actually has the opposite effect: students who were prone to pre-test anxiety and journaled about their fears before an exam improved their test scores by nearly one grade point.
Go gently with yourself at first. Maybe choose one week to keep a worry diary, making a promise to yourself that you’ll write down every worrisome thought, however silly it might seem. At the end of that week, or whatever period of time you choose, the list will serve as a reflection of where your mind has gone in terms of imagined outcomes. Go through the list and challenge your anxious thoughts:
5. Write down what you’re grateful for. Take a few moments to consider some things in your life that you appreciate. Who, what, and where fills you with a sense of gratitude? Research suggests that when we take note of and cultivate increased appreciation in our lives, we feel happier and more optimistic about our lives. Try listing three things that made you feel good each day, or at the end of every week — coffee counts.
There are many science-backed relaxation techniques (deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, massage, getting outdoors, or just doing things you enjoy!) that counter feelings of anxiety and stress. Incorporating them into your daily life can promote a calmer frame of mind, and help ward off worry. We just might find that we spend a lot less time feeling uncertain and concerned about what lies ahead.