“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Worry is like that. As we ruminate and worry, we put our bodies through tremendous stress, almost as if we have actually lived through the situation we are worried about. It’s estimated that anywhere between 80-90% of what we worry about never happens. I am willing to bet that if you kept track of your worried thoughts – all of them – over even a one-week period – you might find this statistic holds true for you. I’m talking about ALL the worried thoughts you might have, from “I might get fired” to “My hair looks awful today.”
How does worry manifest in your life? Do you ever find yourself worrying about something you did that didn’t work out to your liking? Or to someone else’s liking? It happens to all of us. Maybe it was something you said, or something you worry might come up in the future. As a simple example, the other day I found myself worried about something I said to someone and I didn’t get the reaction I thought I would get. Later I started to worry – did I offend them? Did they think I was foolish? Are they angry at me? All of this without any basis except that I didn’t get the response I desired. Why?
In two words – negativity bias – our tendency to be more attentive to negative than positive events. We are, quite literally, hard-wired to worry. In essence, worry is the default mode for most of us. You may take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.
There’s a reason that your mind tends to worry. In addition, knowing there is a reason we worry gives you the opportunity to challenge those negative thoughts, and not simply accept them as a true emergency in the moment. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway. Worry is not healthy for us! It unleashes a cascade of stress hormones which, in turn, wreaks havoc on our minds, bodies, and spirits.
What can be done? You might wonder if you are doomed to worry for the rest of your life. No! Science now demonstrates that through neuroplasticity, the brain has the ability to rewire by consciously changing our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. “What fires together wires together” is the popular phrase often used to simplify this process. So, every time you challenge your habitual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and consciously do things differently, you begin to form new neural pathways You can reprogram the default worry mode. Isn’t that great? This means that each time you consciously change your thoughts, you are firing new neurons that build new pathways. In addition, the more you do this, you weaken the old pathway of worry. But it takes effort and action to change your brain. The good news is that once your new habit of challenging the negative brain takes root, it becomes your new autopilot and you will find yourself worrying less.
Challenge the Worried Brain
If you find yourself with worried thoughts, consider trying the following:
1. Ask yourself “What am I actually worried about?” Sometimes we aren’t even sure. Define the worry.
2. Ask yourself if there is something you can or should do about the situation. If so, do it! And then you can check that off your worry list. If the same thought recurs, you can remind yourself it is done and bring yourself back to your current reality, mindfully present.
3. If there is nothing to be done about the situation, except worry about it, stop yourself. It’s already done. You have a choice to keep ruminating about it or to take a deep breath and let it go. It’s also helpful to repeat a “go-to” phrase or thought such as “Oh that’s just my worried mind again.”
These are some general questions you can ask that help to challenge the negative brain. There are many other techniques as well. Give it a try and see how it works for you. Remember, every time you challenge your negative brain, you are firing new neurons with the potential to rewire your brain toward the positive.
I leave you with Corrie ten Boom’s quote that beautifully points out the futility of worry, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.”
Nancy Friedman, Chief Being Officer