Feeling more worried and anxious than usual?
You’re far from alone.
Anxiety thrives on uncertainty.
And, as the coronavirus spreads and society is turned upside down, our unanswered questions can make us feel vulnerable or fearful.
“Will it come to my community?” “Am I at risk?” Will I lose my job?”
Now don’t get me wrong:
Worry and anxiety are actually useful when it sharpens our cognitive responses and spurs us into action. After all, It’s part of our programming as human beings.
Even the calmest, most collected individuals will feel worry from time to time.
But worrying can also take shape of its own and become more harmful than beneficial.
So in this article, I thought I’d 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
The first thing we need to understand is that 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 despite what many people think, worrying isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all worry to some extent, and this worry helps us achieve the outcome we most desire.
Worrying about a test might make a person study more; worrying about a job interview might make them prepare more thoroughly.
And worrying about contracting the coronavirus might spur us into action to protect ourselves by washing our hands more, keeping our distance from others and staying at home.
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
I’ve personally experienced those manifestations. The worst bit is that you know your worrying is excessive, but yet you still can’t help it.
It’s like a tornado in your mind that feeds on itself.
Fortunately, there are ways to cap worrying and even shape it to help, rather than allowing worrying to grow into negative and potentially harmful habits.
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.
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.
There’s a great quote from the Dalai Lama that illustrates this point perfectly:
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
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.
This is something that I struggled to understand when I was struggling with anxiety years ago.
Instead of fighting against my anxiety, I needed to learn to accept it for what it is.
(You can read my story about how learning Buddhist teachings changed my life here).
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 envelop and direct your life, you can turn every single bad situation around by preparing practical steps on how to get over the worst.
Meditation has long been known to reduce stress and achieve a calm state of mind.
Meditation can reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, which are known physiological signs of stress.
The good news is, anyone can practice meditation.
Here are 4 steps to get you started:
1) Select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruption.
2) Get comfortable.
Find a body position that makes you relaxed and comfortable.
3) Try to get into a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Let your mind go blank.
If thoughts and worries appear, just acknowledge them then go back to trying to be relaxed and thoughtless.
4) Concentrate on a mental device.
You could use a mantra, or a simple word, that is repeated over and over. Or you could stare at a fixed object. Whatever it is, the goal is to focus on something so you block out thoughts and distractions.
As time goes on, you’ll get better at focusing your mind on whatever you choose to during your meditation.
For example, elite Buddhist monks can focus their mind on an object for hours without getting distracted.
When I started, I could barely 20 seconds! Now I can 10-20 minutes every single day and I can undoubtedly say that my concentration has improved immensely.
If you want to learn more mindful techniques that can help you focus and calm down, check out my eBook: The Art of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Living in the Moment.
In this eBook, you’ll get simple, actionable tips that you can put into practice straight away.
I’ll walk you through your first meditation, and give you some straightforward but powerful exercises to help you be more mindful every day.
5) 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.
6) 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.
7) Breathing exercises
Simple breathing exercises can also help to reduce stress and increase relaxation.
Rapid, erratic breathing is a common result of stress. But slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation.
If you learn to control your breathing to mimic relaxation, the effect will be relaxing.
For me, breathing exercises have been the number one most important habit I’ve adopted in my life.
I’ve been doing them consistently for 6 years now and they’ve helped me improve my ability to control my reactions, and calm myself down.
The good news?
There are many breathing techniques you can adopt into your life, from the most basic to the more advanced.
In my eBook The Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhist Philosophy for a Better Life, I outline my favorite breathing and meditation techniques. If you’re looking to dive deep into these techniques, as well as learn more about Buddhist philosophy, you can check out my book here.
For now, here’s how you can quickly get stuck into deep breathing:
1) Breathe in slowly and deeply, while focusing on your stomach going up and down.
2) Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
3) Exhale, thinking about how relaxing it is, for 6 seconds.
4) Repeat this sequence 5 to 10 times, focusing on breathing slowly and deeply.
This a great way to reduce stress, and you can do it for as long as you like. The other benefit is that you can do it wherever you like.
Here’s a video explaining the neuroscience behind why tuning into your senses is effective in tuning your mind into the present moment:
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.
The idea behind five senses medication is to focus on one thing or phenomenon and experience it vividly through the five senses.
Let’s say you’re taking a shower. No doubt it’s a normal part of your day, so much so that you’re on autopilot when you’re doing it.
During the meditation, pay close attention to the water prattling on your skin. Is it warm? Is it cold?
Next, listen to the water droplets fall onto the bathroom floor. Try and distinguish each fall from one another. Lather yourself with shampoo – what does it smell like? Watch as the bubbles form from mere liquid.
Finally, brush your teeth as you have many times before – what does your toothpaste taste like? Are you getting all mint, perhaps some fruit undertones?
Doing this exercise whenever you’re feeling a little untethered will keep you from floating away completely. By focusing on the here and now, you are training your mind to stay relaxed, calm, and aware.
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.
For me, writing has always helped my mind slow down and structure the information in my head. It’s allowed me to understand my emotions and therefore, accept them.
Journaling helps you express your painful feelings in a safe environment. No one is going to read what you write.
You might be angry, or sad. Whatever it is you’re feeling, let it out. Process those feelings.
If you’re wondering how you can begin journaling, try asking these three questions:
How am I feeling?
What am I doing?
What am I trying to change about my life?
These questions will give you insight into your emotions and prompt you to think about the future.
Writing down what you are going to change gives you the ultimate responsibility to change your life.
Understanding that you hold the cards for creating a great life is empowering. You don’t need to rely on other people for you to take responsibility for your life and shape where it’s headed.
The Importance Of Controlling Your Worries
Repeat after me: 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.