How to stop worrying about everything

Worry is a very common emotion, it is present in our every day life to some degree of intensity. Right now you might be worried about climate change, about fuel prices in our city, about a colleague who doesn’t seem her usual self today or about the general wellbeing of a loved one. But you might also worry or even experience high levels of anxiety about much bigger and personal things such as whether you will be able to afford our own home, whether your family will still accept you once you come out as gay, whether you will be able to get pregnant before you hit the menopause or whether losing your job means your family will soon be homeless.

Worrying about uncertain future outcomes, also known as intolerance of uncertainty (IU), can lead to feeling hesitant, insecure and anxious. Worry and anxiety are such powerful emotions that they can even change the structure and function of your brain, as they release stress hormones and cause imbalances in neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other, which might cause memory loss or an increase in fear and anxiety.

How Intolerant of Uncertainty are you?

The truth is that everyone is intolerant of uncertainty to some degree, but how intolerant are you exactly? How much uncertainty are you comfortable with? Let’s try to find out with this exercise. Look at the following thoughts and behaviours. Using a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means ‘I never do this’ and 10 means ‘I do this all the time’, evaluate how uncertainty affects your daily life:

  • I seek information, anticipate problems and plan solutions to every possible problem I may face
  • I worry even about the most unlikely thing that may happen (e.g., being in a plane crash, being diagnosed with a terminal disease)
  • I look for perfect solutions that must have a 100% chance of working
  • I seek every opinion for reassurance that my decision is correct or that the outcome of something will be positive
  • I over prepare, create to-do lists and check my work numerous times to make sure it’s perfect
  • I believe that worrying is a good thing because it prevents uncertainty
  • I believe that uncertainty means something bad will happen
  • I feel or believe that it is irresponsible, or even dangerous, to have uncertainty in my life
  • I would rather know for sure that the outcome of a situation will be bad, than have the uncertainty of not knowing
  • I avoid personal or professional situations where the outcome is uncertain

Whether you have identified yourself as having high or low uncertainty tolerance after doing this exercise, you must now humbly accept that you will never be able to control everything that happens in your future nor will you be able to fully mitigate uncertainty. So the best course of action is to explore strategies to help you move from worrier to warrior.

Changing our attitude is not that easy, however, studies in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) show that our thoughts, feelings and actions are all inter-connected, and that if we change one, we can change the others, so this can be an excellent way to get started.

Develop a ‘warrior’ attitude

So you are determined to take action and to reduce the amount of worrying/fear/anxiety in your daily life. You are determined to live big, to take up challenges and to not let opportunities get past you. Great! Here are four useful strategies that can help you on your journey:

#1 – Act ‘as if’ – One of the most recommended strategies to overcome our negative thoughts, emotions and actions is called act ‘as if’. Unlike the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to developing confidence, act ‘as if’ does not focus on making others believe you are what you are not, but rather, act ‘as if’ is an exercise designed to make us focus on a specific thought, behaviour or action we want to change by choosing to be in situations that would trigger a negative response and learning to deal with them by planning ahead to act ‘as if’ they did not affect us negatively. The situations will still spark a negative response in us, but we would have planned not to focus on the emotion, thought or action it triggers but instead, on the experience of that situation, as if we were one more of the other people enjoying that same situation with us. The focus is not on how others perceive us but on how we manage the situation ourselves and the control we are able to exercise over our response to the trigger.

For instance, a work meeting or school presentation may be a situation that triggers worry or anxiety, leading to inaction. Where before you would choose to stay silent in the meeting or to avoid presentation projects, now you choose those situations and you choose to enjoy them (to the extent you can) while trying not to focus on the emotions they awaken in you. For this, you may have planned your script well, you may have visited the venue to be familiar and more comfortable with the environment on the day or you may have asked a loved one to sit on the front row so you can see a familiar, calming face if you lose track of your goal – not the presentation itself, but the managing the emotions/thoughts/actions part!

To make the most of this strategy here are some steps:

  • Identify the problem. What thought, emotion or action is stopping you from taking every opportunity in life? Write it/them down. This will help you visualise what limits you in life and can serve to create an action plan.
  • Define the behaviour you want to create. New behaviours can affect and change our thoughts and emotions, which is why in this step you focus only on changing your behaviour, your actions. What is the specific behaviour that you want to start creating? Write it/them down next to the problem(s) you want to change.
  • Take small steps. Rome wasn’t built in one day and similarly, you cannot overcome your worries, fear and anxiety overnight. So think about this, what are the small steps you can take today in order to, slowly, create your desired behaviour? Break them down. For example, if you are afraid of public speaking, don’t go and sign up for a TED talk in front of a large group. Focus instead on asking a question in your next work meeting or university lecture. Then, you can slowly move on to more challenging situations.
  • Master the 2 Ps: practice and patience. Remember that shifting attitudes and behaviours is not an easy task. Give yourself as much time as you need to practise and acquire skill at it. You might try visualisation and imaging yourself asking a questions in front of a small group. Or you might want to practise asking/answering actual questions out loud in front of a mirror. You could role-play the behaviour(s) with a friend or even with your pet! The point is to remember the different behaviours involved in each small step (not just asking the question but also making eye contact, adopting a friendly but confident-looking body posture, smiling) and to allow yourself time and space to practise as much as you need before taking it to another level.

#2- Mindfulness meditation. There are many physical, mental and emotional benefits of practising mindfulness mediation. One benefit is that focusing on the here and now, bringing attention to our breathing and to our emotional state can help us calm down and transform negative emotions into positive ones. But for it to have a greater impact we should practice mindfulness every day. Why? Well, in the same way that showering daily keeps a clean and healthy body, daily mindfulness practice keeps a focused and healthy mind.

Mindfulness meditation, and mindfulness in general, is not about sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed or looking at the tip of your nose. It is about bringing awareness to everything you do. It can be a great companion of the act ‘as if’ strategy, as we can use it while practising a small step to help us focus on the desired behaviour and avoid resorting back to the old habit of worrying or panicking about an uncertain future outcome.

There are lots of apps, blog articles and guided mindfulness meditations online that you can try to get you started and to train your mind in the skills of being in the here and now.

#3- CBT therapy – Therapy might be more suitable for those who are not confident that they will be able to make changes by themselves. If you choose therapy, the course of treatment usually lasts between 5 and 20 session depending on your progress. Your therapist and you will work together to understand the relationship between your problem and your thoughts, feelings and actions. Your therapist will give you a series of actionable steps and skills that you will have to implement in your daily life. Then, in subsequent sessions you will discuss how you are managing your situation and how you are stopping your problems from having a negative impact on your life. CBT can also be provided in different formats, including in groups, self-help books and apps.

#4- Reality check. What would you lose if you did nothing about it? When we worry, we usually ask ourselves, what would I lose if I tried and didn’t succeed? And we always find a long list of things we might lose by not succeeding, our reputation, our self-esteem, our confidence, our job, our savings… the list goes on. But we seldom examine what we would lose if we didn’t even try. Let’s try this out.

Imagine you got offered to do your manager’s job for 6 moths, which would increase your workload. What would be the impact of saying yes to the offer but doing a bad job? In the worst case scenario, your CEO would quickly appoint a more competent person and you’d just go back to your old job. But what would happen if you actually did really well at the job and discovered that you are brilliant at managing people and projects? What opportunities might open up for you? A promotion? A higher salary? Bonuses and other perks? Your dream job at a bigger company? Buying your dream house? Being able to take your family on a holiday every summer? Taking your children to a better school?

What action will you take?

Now think about your life. Think about something you have been avoiding or rejecting for fear of not doing a great job, or maybe for fear of failure. Now think about it from the opposite perspective. What if you were successful at it? What if it went exactly as you would like it to? What would you miss out on by not taking action on it today? The cost of inaction would be too high, wouldn’t it? You stand to lose much more by not acting on things and letting worry and fear get in the way than by trying and not meeting your own expectations.

So, what is one challenge you are going to work on today as a result of reading this? What will be your plan of action? Which small steps could you take today to help you get there? Leave a comment.