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How to stop worrying: 9 tips to get your mind back on track

Worrying is a common human response. Even the calmest, most collected individuals will also feel worry from time to time.

It’s part of our programming as human beings, and is a response that can be used to sharpen our cognitive responses when necessary. 

However, worrying can also take a shape of its own and become more harmful than beneficial.

In this article, we explain how worrying affects your body mentally and physically, as well as some actionable tips on how to transform your excess mental energy into something more productive and positive. 

Why We Worry, and Why Worrying Isn’t Always So Bad

Worrying is a normal part of life. We experience anxiety and stress during important moments – job interviews, crucial tests, life-changing social confrontations.

We worry because the mind understands that, unlike the vast majority of the moments that make up our lives, an approaching event can radically define the status of your life.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, the mind believes it, making the anxiety towards a trivial issue as real as the anxiety towards a more serious issue.

But worrying isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all worry to some extent, and this worry helps us achieve the outcome we most desire.

For example, worrying about a test might make a person study more; worrying about a job interview might make them prepare more thoroughly.

It’s when worrying becomes excessive that we start to observe problems in the way it manifests.

Negative manifestations of worrying beyond the general anxiety and stress include:

Worrying so much that it paralyzes you from participating in or engaging with the cause of your worry

Worrying that is so excessive that the body creates an intense stress response that negatively impacts the person’s mental and physical health

Worrying to the point of causing self-harm to avoid the source of anxiety

In many ways, worrying is an important response to have – we should place more care and attention on important events that can define our education, career, social status, and more.

However, a person must learn to cap their worrying and shape it to help them, rather than allow their worrying to grow into negative and potentially harmful habits.

Why Worrying Can Be So Troublesome

We tend to think of worrying as an emotional issue, and for the most part, it is.

Worrying can be thought of as a more present manifestation of anxiety or stress, both of which we can find relief from through mental exercises that calm us down.

And as an emotional issue, we don’t often think of the repercussions of worrying.

Because we think: what repercussions? Emotions are just emotions – they exist in our head, and therefore they are imaginary.

For most of human history, emotions and other “imaginary” mental issues have been waved away as issues you can simply wish away through mental fortitude.

Fortunately, modern studies of the complex underpinnings behind heightened emotional and mental states have given present-day psychologists and scientists a more advanced understanding of how these heightened states – like worrying – can actually cause significant damage to the individual, both mentally and physically.

Simply put, we now understand that just because worrying can be traced back to emotions and anxiety doesn’t mean it can’t be considered a real issue.

So why exactly is worrying so troublesome, and in some cases, a problem that individuals should take with absolute sobriety?

How Worrying Affects Your Body and Mind

Worrying affects the body and mind in unique ways through the same process: the manifestation of a stress response, and the effect the stress response has on the individual.

As we know, a stress response occurs when worrying and anxiety begin to trigger an individual beyond the level of mere annoyance.

Stress responses are composed of two elements: the observation of a challenge or problem that the individual does not want to face, and the answer the individual makes to the challenge.

This is commonly known as the “fight or flight response”, which leads to a rush of adrenaline within the body, putting the body in a heightened state of preparedness.

The fight or flight response leads to a combination of changes in your body. Your level of cortisol (stress hormone) increases, your heart rate quickens, your muscles tighten, and more.

While the fight or flight response is a natural reaction to stress, and has helped humanity avoid and overcome stressful and life-threatening challenges for thousands of years, today this reaction can be overwhelming, especially when the source of the anxiety is not nearly as threatening as the individual perceives.

For example, you might need the biological changes of the fight or flight response when confronted by a dangerous predator in the wild, but not so much when anticipating a difficult high school test the next morning.

The excessive release of stress hormones leads to a number of health issues, such as:

  Intense tension headaches

  Increased depression from emotional exhaustion

 Increased stomach acid production, leading to and worsening heartburn

 Stress hyper-activating the brain, leading to excessive energy and insomnia

 Tense muscles that make it more difficult to breathe

  Stress hormones leading to weakened immune system

  High blood sugar and possibly type 2 diabetes, as stress can trigger the liver to add more glucose into the blood for extra energy

 Heart problems caused by a rapidly beating heart

 Digestive issues caused by the effect of excessive stress hormones on the digestive system

 Reproductive issues such as erectile dysfunction and fertility problems, caused by the interaction of stress hormones on the mind and body

 Fatigue leading to low sex drive

 Missed periods due to long-term hormonal imbalances caused by stress hormones

 Skeletomuscular problems such as backaches and neck aches caused by long-term muscle tension due to stress hormones

As we can see, worrying is much more than just an “emotional issue”, but a serious condition that can lead to a multitude of problems with the mind and body if left unchecked.

Do You Worry Too Much? Knowing When Worrying Is a Problem or Disorder

We all worry, but when do you know that you worry too much? Here are a few differences between normal worrying and excessive worrying:

Normal Worrying Excessive Worrying
You spend a few minutes lying awake every night, thinking about upcoming tasks and problems You find yourself tossing and turning for hours, unable to get a good night’s sleep just because you are so overwhelmed with stress and anxiety
When people describe you, they don’t really mention that you are an anxious or nervous person When people describe you, one of the first things they talk about is your anxiety and general neurosis. People think of you as a worried person, and it is a defining part of your character
You find yourself losing your appetite or eating too much whenever a stressful event is about to happen You experience extreme weight changes, either from eating away your stress or not eating at all because of stress
When a trivial event happens, you think about it and move on When a trivial event happens, you overanalyze it, dissect it, and replay it in your head dozens of times, making sure that you did nothing wrong
You spend some time every week just enjoying your free time, doing something you like doing You find yourself unable to spend any time worry-free, making it impossible to enjoy anything with complete bliss
Sometimes you find yourself needing a quick drink to relax yourself after a rough day You have completely turned to using alcohol and other substances to give your mind the only freedom from stress and anxiety you will feel the whole day
When you think about something, you worry about it for a while, and then move on after rationalizing it No matter how irrational something might be, you will continue to worry about it and let it shape your thoughts until you forget

If you find yourself experiencing more symptoms from the second column than the first, than it is likely that you have a problem with worrying, anxiety, and stress.

In fact, one condition that more people are developing in recent years is known as generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD.

GAD is exaggerated and excessive worry and anxiety for irrational or imaginary reasons.

Individuals who experience GAD always seem to have worries about all aspects of their life, including school, work, family, money, health, relationships, and more.

No amount of outside reasoning or rationalizing can help people with GAD, as worrying has become their first and most prominent response to any kind of stress.

Symptoms of GAD include:

Physical and mental exhaustion

Inability to concentrate and focus

Headaches

Restlessness

Insomnia

Paranoia

Physical trembling

Frequent bathroom breaks

Sweating

Muscle tension

But whether you have GAD or not, there are three major factors that determine whether a person has a problem with worrying. These are:

1) You Search For Problems to be Worried About

The biggest sign of a person who has trouble with worrying is an obvious addiction to worrying.

These are people who have become dependent on the need to worry, not necessarily because they are scared or nervous about everything, but because being in a state of worrying makes them feel secure.

There are many people who only feel that they are safe and alert when they have something to worry about, and begin to feel paranoid and insecure when everything seems to be going their way.

This leads to individuals who actively search for problems to worry about, thus manufacturing their own sources of stress to keep their mind and body at heightened levels.

2) You “Catastrophize”

Catastrophizing is a term used in psychology to refer to a common cognitive distortion in which a person takes a normal situation, predicts a negative outcome from that situation, and begins to imagine themselves in the worst case scenario, and act and feel as if that imaginary worst case scenario has already occurred.

They take a situation and visualize it as a catastrophe.

In many ways, catastrophizing is an extreme version of the first point described, however instead of having an addiction to being in a state of worry, individuals who catastrophize rather seem to use it as a kind of defense mechanism, to prevent themselves from pushing beyond their comfort levels.

For example, a student might catastrophize by imagining that they are too stupid to pass an important test, and instead of using that to motivate them, they think of it as a guarantee, thus using it as an excuse to not study at all.

3) You Don’t Understand People Who Don’t Worry

Excessive worrying only occurs when an individual is convinced that their circumstances are universally negative.

Whatever it is that is causing our worry and anxiety, it is rarely a case where we believe that we are the only person to be affected by our source of stress.

So we are left wondering: how can everyone else act so calm?

People with worrying problems are unable to understand why so few (if any) people around them feel the same way.

They seek out similar-minded people, but are unable to find them in their own communities.

This forces people who have a tendency to worry excessively to search online for like minded individuals, creating highly niche and unusual online groups.

How To Stop Yourself From Spiraling

Anxiety attacks rarely subside into neutrality. Instead of taking the time to breathe and relax, most of us will spiral and think the worst possible things about our situation.

Taking control of your mind once you’ve begun descending below the pit of negative thoughts can be downright impossible, so much so that spiraling can feel like an inevitability once you start worrying.

However, spiraling doesn’t have to be the end destination.

There are mental exercises you can do to catch yourself before your thoughts take a turn for the worst.

To help yourself get back on track, it’s good to perform some mental exercises that will recalibrate your mental faculties, giving you better control over your thought process. 

1) Understand The Source Of Your Anxiety 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • What parts of the problem do I feel are out of my control?
  • At what point did I start spiraling? 

They say overthinking is the last thing you should do when experiencing a panic attack, but doing so could also help clear the fog and put the problem in logical, practical terms. 

As such, dissecting your thoughts is the first step to stopping the spiral. Instead of viewing the problem, real or perceived, as one colossal thing, try to tackle it piece by piece.

Take apart individual elements that make up the problem and ask yourself which parts generate anxiety and worry. 

At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a much better understanding of your situation, allowing you to easily navigate through your emotions and reactions. 

2) Accept That The Past Is Past 

Things to tell yourself:

  • Worrying won’t change anything at this point, so why do it?
  • There are other things that are within my control, and I’ll focus on that.
  • One mistake/event/problem doesn’t define who I am. 

At the end of it all, worrying is really just a reaction; a coping mechanism we use to try and alleviate the situation by taking charge of our thoughts.

But we have to remember that it’s not, by any means, a solution. Worrying only expands the problem and makes it more palpable; it doesn’t contribute to its resolution. 

Sometimes outcomes are permanent, and there is no other choice but to move forward.

Worrying about things you can’t ever change is pointless, and you’re only wasting your energy reliving something that has already happened. 

Instead of figuring out the hundreds of different scenarios that could have happened, accept the very real one that did and strive to move forward and do better next time.

It’s really about internalizing how permanent the situation is, and accepting that no amount of worrying or anxiety could change the outcome, so why insist on worrying about it? 

3) Start Figuring Out Your Options 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the best/worst case scenarios, and how do I proceed with either scenarios?
  • What is my backup plan if this doesn’t work out?
  • How do I make sure I don’t hit the bottom in case things don’t work out?

Our tendency to focus more on negative thoughts than positive ones may be an involuntary cognitive process after all, scientists suggest.

The phenomenon of negative bias explains why humans gravitate towards negative thoughts more, suggesting that it is hardwired into our evolution as a sort of protection against the worst. 

However, what is supposed to be a proactive and protective defense protocol can easily turn into a paralyzing disorder.

As soon as we think of the worst, we convince ourselves to delay dealing with the problem or situation entirely to avoid having to confront reality. 

But this doesn’t really do anything but postpone the confrontation. Problems don’t go away just because you choose to walk away from them.

Again, you only feel stuck because you put yourself in the worst possible scenario. Instead of stopping there, force yourself to imagine life beyond the problem and start figuring out ways on how to get there. 

Remember that every single point in your life, no matter how bad, can be a starting point.

As long as you don’t allow worry to envelope and direct your life, you can turn every single bad situation around by preparing practical steps on how to get over the worst. 

4) Remember All The Other Times You Felt Anxious 

Things to tell yourself:

  • I have gone through similar situations before and things turned out better than I imagined. 
  • This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and I’ll get over it just like last time. 
  • This problem won’t seem so big a year from now. 

Life’s impermanence is a blessing in disguise. We may not be able to hold on to things we relish, like safety, stability, and confidence, but that also means bad moments won’t haunt you for the rest of your life.

In the midst of worrying, we tend to forget that life operates in a cycle of good and bad, and that sometimes the only way to get through it is to ride out the storm.

When experiencing bouts of uncontrollable worrying, you need to be practical and remember all the times you’ve been worried before.

It’s a good reminder that the things you worried about a year ago don’t matter today, and that this problem won’t matter a year from now. 

5) Be Wary Of Automatic Thoughts

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I still feel this way about myself when I’m at a good point in my life?
  • Do I have a tendency to make myself feel worse when I’m at a low point?
  • Do I usually have this much doubt in myself?

Negative affirmations like “I’m a loser”, “I don’t have what it takes to make it”, “I’m never going to be good enough” come easily when we worry.

But even though worrying is temporary, the things we say to ourselves in bouts of difficulty are permanent.

Whatever negative thing you say about yourself is bound to chip away at your self-confidence, affecting you even after you stop worrying. 

So whenever you start hearing these automatic doubts in your head, remember that they aren’t constant and are only there because you are worrying.

Realize that however you feel about yourself right now is impermanent, and that you one event or problem isn’t going to define who you are as a person. 

Turning Worrying Into Productivity

At the end of the day, worrying is just an excess of mental energy, and just like any kind of energy, you can redirect it into something more positive and productive.

Listed below are some actionable things you can do everyday to translate your nervous energy into something else:

1) Perform A Physical Activity

A great way to take a break from your unproductive worrying is to physically step away from the situation.

When we’re anxious, we’re filled with negative energy that makes us restless. Instead of using this energy to fuel your worries, consider channeling it towards a physical activity. 

Anything from hitting the gym to rearranging your closet is a great way to engage your mind in physical activity.

To get the most out of your time, it’s best to do something that requires concentration and mind-muscle connection; this way, you’re simultaneously training your brain to be more mindful of the present activity, which forces your mind to focus on the task at hand. 

Things you can do: Take a hike, weightlifting, use a hula hoop or jump rope, follow a choreography online, do yoga, reorganize your room, do sprint intervals, plank for as long as possible

2) Center Your Thoughts

Being mentally absent doesn’t always necessitate a mental solution. You can interact with the world around you to engage your physical senses and bring you back to Earth.

Centering your thoughts involves using your sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste to force your brain to focus on the here and now. 

Things you can do: Focus on one object and describe it with all five senses, go on a food trip be mindful of every bite, make a list of the objects around you, go for a walk and interact with your environment 

3) Do Something Creative

If you’re not feeling up for something physical, there are other ways to transform your nervous energy into something productive.

Most people feel their most creative during tense, sad, or disappointing moments. Instead of wallowing in your worry, harvest these raw emotions and use it to do something poetic. 

Maybe you can finally start that book project you have been thinking about, maybe you can write a short poem.

No matter what you choose to do, this new activity is bound to help you redirect this excess mental energy elsewhere. Who knows, you might pick up a new hobby along the way. 

Things you can do: Focus on one object and describe it with all five senses, go on a food trip be mindful of every bite, make a list of the objects around you, go for a walk and interact with your environment 

4) Journal Your Emotions

Writing down every thought and emotion you have is beneficial for two reasons: a) you are able to reflect on your experiences at the moment; and b) you can use these notes for future reference. 

Journaling is useful for chronic worriers because they tend to forget the rest of their reality. Worrying can convince you that your life is anything but satisfying.

Having a journal will remind you that life isn’t as bad as you think it is right now. Every time you feel desolate, you can read through old entries and get a more accurate depiction of your life. 

Things you can do: Journal every morning and night to track how your mood changes throughout the day, write down every single negative thought and explain why it happens

The Importance Of Controlling Your Worries 

Repeat after us: worrying doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. It can be the one nudge that motivates you to move forward and do better with your life. 

On the other hand, it could also be the very thing that paralyzes you and harms your self-confidence.

Worrying in itself is not harmful to the human spirit; it’s unregulated, uncontrolled forms of worry that eat away at your self-assurance and sense of hope.

While you can’t prevent yourself from worrying, you have to remember that you also don’t have to be a slave to your emotions.

Give yourself the time and space to worry about a situation, but don’t let it consume you for the rest of the day. 

Instead of letting it control you, use worrying to inspire yourself to create a better version of yourself.

Worrying should not make you a weaker person – it should help you imagine a life that is bigger than what you have right now, and propel you into achieving that reality.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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