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What to Do When You Worry All the Time

Drawing of Worried GirlEveryone experiences worry at times. Worry is a normal part of life. Unfortunately for some people, worrying too much or too intensely comes at a cost.

This can happen when the intensity of worry, amount of time spent worrying, and/or types of things that worry you creates a situation where the worry itself becomes problematic. Worry can significantly interfere with your ability to live life and enjoy what means the most to you.

What makes it worse is not knowing what to do about your worry when it takes over your mind and prevents you from enjoying your life.

It is normal for people to experience worry, even on a fairly regular basis. This gives us an innate way of knowing something is important to us. If a person, event in your life, or desired outcome wasn’t something that you really cared about, you probably wouldn’t worry about it. Any thoughts or “what-if”s would be pushed aside and probably wouldn’t take up much of your time and energy. You might not even notice or remember that they were there at all.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WORRY OVERWHELMS?

If you are someone who deals with an excessive amount of worry, chances are many a well-intentioned friend or family member has encouraged you - “don’t worry” or “stop worrying so much.”

Whether it was from a friend, co-worker, family member, or even your own internal voice, it might seem like a way to regain control over your mind. The problem is, being told not to worry doesn’t make the worry go away. It can even make the worry worse. Being reminded not to worry can have the opposite effect in that it might trouble you how uncontrollable your worry is. It becomes a downward spiral and a difficult pattern to stop.

You may have tried some sort of distraction (TV show, social media, hobby, cleaning, exercise) to try to escape the worry. That’s a very common approach people will take to try to not feel worried. But your mind always found its way back to the worry. You might have also tried things like eating, drinking, or smoking, but the relief from those didn’t last very long either.

You never seem to be able to escape your worry. It feels like a constant presence in your life. Like it or not, it has taken over, and you are at a loss on how to stop it.

IT ALL STARTED OUT WELL-INTENDED

The capacity to think about a problem and really dive into all the details, then determine the best way of approaching it and see the plan all the way through to fruition are a great set of skills to have. Some people are particularly talented at this process, and they reap the benefits. The best thinkers in our society are held in very high regard. Our culture is filled with stories of people who saw a problem like nobody else had before, came up with a revolutionary strategy, and then went out and accomplished it.

This problem-solving mechanism is natural and hard-wired into our brain. Our early ancestors needed the capability to recognize problems and handle them in a way that ensured survival. We are still around today because of our sharpened ability to see a threat and then solve that problem.

Our advanced brains allow us to not only handle the problems right in front of us, but those that have yet to emerge. We are capable of thinking ahead and solving problems in advance of them occurring. We can consider what could happen in a particular situation, even if improbable, and then take appropriate and sensible precautions. We can think in terms of “What If?” Our brains can be very good at protecting us.

A GOOD PROCESS GONE EXTREME

Sometimes, though, our brains can be a bit too good at this. The result of our brains going above and beyond is not that we’re really any safer or better protected. It’s that we experience strong, unwanted, and uncontrolled emotions, thoughts, memories, and images. Not just about ourselves, but concerning those we care about the most. Not just for one or two particular situations, but in many or all of them. Not just now, but in a hypothetical future that exists entirely in our heads. Our minds continually tell or show us all the bad that could happen, and we don’t know how to stop it.

Simply put, we drive ourselves crazy.

THE POTENTIAL RESULTS OF EXCESSIVE WORRY

Worrying excessively, a term that is often interchanged with generalized anxiety, is when the usually beneficial and well-meaning system leads to an unhealthy and unhelpful experience. The results of excessive worry can include:

  • Feelings of extreme distress
  • Significant time lost to worrying
  • Inability to take any action towards the problem(s)
  • Mental fatigue and exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frustration when dealing with the problem
  • Struggle to maintain focus on anything else
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tension
  • Irritability
  • Low confidence in one’s own ability to problem-solve
  • Pessimism

People who are experiencing excessive worry not only feel the effects in their own emotional and mental states, but can have problems in their relationships, physical health, and quality of life. Too often, people will change how they live in order to try to reduce their anguish and how much of it they believe they will experience in the future. But it only serves to make their situation worse off.

These avoidance tactics could include “playing it safe” and taking fewer chances, self-sabotaging rather than risking trying your best and things still not working out, not making any choice in order to not make the “wrong” one, and spending excessive time and resources investigating whatever the content of the worry might be in hopes that it finally settles your nerves. When people engage in these types of behaviors, they usually find that not only did they actually increase their frequency and intensity of worry, but now find themselves stuck in a less-fulfilling life.

WHAT LEADS AN EXCESSIVE WORRIER TO START TREATMENT

When people begin therapy for their excessive worry, they are often caught in an unhealthy cycle. While you feel like you can’t help but worry, you don’t like being worried as constantly and intensely as you are. This is especially the case when you realize the severe emotional, mental, and physical toll it takes.

This can lead to a great deal of conflict about the role that worry has on your life. You may think that it is the worrying (specifically, the false sense of control that worrying can give) that stands between you and the dreaded outcomes that may or may not occur.

In other words, the cycle of worry might lead you to falsely believe that catastrophes were avoided because you actively worried. Because you did not have the opportunity to see what would have happened if you had focused on living your life, instead of indulging the worry.

So, the worry works. Right? Probably not the case.

MY APPROACH TO TREATING WORRY

Through the therapy process, we work together to help free you from the stressful experience of constant worry. We intentionally leave out dialogue like “don’t worry” or “stop worrying.” Our therapeutic focus is on getting your mind’s problem-solving mechanism working in a beneficial way. We can then focus on how to handle the unhelpful and unwanted parts of your experience in a healthier way.

You will develop a non-judgmental awareness of your emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, memories, and images that are part of your worrying process. You will also learn techniques for relaxing your body and mind. As you become better at skills like diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, you will be able to decrease the intensity of the unwanted reactions.

The ability to change where you focus your attention when you worry is a very useful skill that you will learn over time. Instead of diving into or indulging in worrying, you will develop the flexibility and freedom to choose what you pay attention to and direct your efforts towards when worried.

Once these skills become part of your routine, we can work on other strategies that can help you. Things such as:

  • Creating a balance between your worry and the reality of these outcomes.
  • Learning to balance different views of a concerning situation and allow them to coexist without focusing on the one that worries you the most.
  • Allowing yourself the experience of having worries, but choosing to put your time, energy, and efforts into what is more important and meaningful to you.
  • Noticing your worry, but choosing to prioritize caring and compassion for yourself and others.
  • Seeing your tendency of falling into the trap of worry, and choosing where to put your mental and emotional resources.

COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT WORRY

The decision to learn different strategies for dealing with worry is more about HOW YOU EXPERIENCE THE WORRY than whether your mind was right or wrong.

Let’s face it, sometimes worrying a little works. If thinking about something helps you effectively prepare and leads to a desirable outcome (without overwhelming or distressing you), then it is working as nature intended.

But if the worry led to lack of sleep, stress eating, intense anxiety, using substances to dull the psychological pain, acting out, or spending excessive time preparing for scenarios that didn’t happen (and probably never will), then maybe it isn’t working.

Learning ways to better handle the problem-solving process might be helpful for you as well as those around you.

A parent worrying about their child is completely normal. However, there are some telltale signs that you might be worrying to excess. Some signs, such as:

  • They are dominating your thoughts.
  • The worrying is taking a huge emotional toll each day.
  • The thoughts are interfering with your ability to fulfill other important roles in your life.
  • It is preventing adequate self-care.

If any or all of these occur, then we work towards developing a more flexible perspective and different ways of dealing with the worry. Not to “turn off” the worry, but to allow you to handle it in a healthier way and with better balance in your life. Dealing with this kind of worry leads to better outcomes for the entire family.

It is very common to have greater difficulty coping with worry later on in the day. Worry can be at its most intense just as you are about to go to bed or when you are laying in bed unable to sleep. You may have found that your body wants to wind down, but your mind runs faster and faster. The same coping skills that may have worked for you throughout the day don’t get any traction when you need and want them to work the most. This is very common and can occur for a number of reasons. Some common reasons include:

  • Not having the same energy to devote to the strategies as earlier in the day.
  • Fewer available distractions.
  • Less available social support (the people you lean on in difficult times might be taking care of their families or asleep themselves).
  • Increase in stress experienced due to inability to sleep when you want.

The worry often compounds when you become concerned about not getting as much sleep as hoped. You may further worry what the next day might be like for you as a result of this lack of sleep. Thus creating a cycle of sleeplessness and exhaustion. Creating more worry.

A combination of targeted strategies to use specifically at night paired with the development of good sleep routines helps people handle the burst of worry that can, and often does, occur later in the evening or at night.

A FINAL WORD ON WORRY

Your worry does not have to take over your life. There are strategies and skills you can use to effectively handle the emotional and physical distress that comes with excessive worrying. You do not have to handle it alone.

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