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How to Stop Worrying: The #1 Skill to Stop Anxiety & Master GAD

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In this post, you’ll learn how to stop worrying. Worry is the fuel of anxiety- it’s what feeds generalized anxiety disorder.

If you want to learn how to control GAD, you have to learn how to control your worry. 

But if you tell someone to stop worrying, they’ll just shake their head- because it’s not that easy. Worry is hard to control. It’s an old habit that’s worn deep grooves into your neural pathways, and you do it because your brain thinks it protects you. (but it really weighs you down)

Keep on reading to learn why your brain likes to worry, why your brain thinks it’s helpful, and a really practical way to set boundaries on your worrying. Because when you do, you can decrease anxiety massively. Like 75%. 

Perceived Danger: Worry Thoughts

Ok, back to the anxiety cycle. We start out here at safety, then there’s a stimulus, and at some point, we perceive danger, we believe that we are in danger whether it’s real or in our head, and that’s what triggers the anxiety response. 

It’s our thoughts of danger that make us feel anxious. And for most people, it’s worrying that fuels anxiety disorders. When we worry, we imagine future dangers – like being rejected, losing our jobs, or failing at life, and that creates a real physical reaction in our bodies, the FFF response. 

And while it seems like the logical answer is to just stop worrying, it doesn’t work like that, because our brain likes to worry, because sometimes it keeps us safe, sometimes worrying protects us. And our brain is designed to keep us alive, not to make us happy. 

So let’s review the two reasons why your brain likes to worry. 

  1. Worry is a mutated form of problem solving. Humans have these super powerful brains that can imagine future scenarios and find solutions to them. Our ability to plan for the future is why we attend school or save for a rainy day. Good problem solving is intentional- you choose to do it, it’s focused on your locus of control- what you can change, and it’s action oriented. But worry is like cancer, it starts to spread into all the areas of your life, it’s telling you when and where to do it, and it often focuses on things that you can’t change. So worry is maladaptive problem solving. 
  2. Worrying secretly feels good. Your brain secretly believes that worrying is preventing bad things from happening. It’s a sneaky form of magical thinking. Let’s say your child is going on a long drive, you worry about your child getting in a car crash, and they don’t get in a car crash. Your brain subconsciously believes that worrying prevented bad things from happening and it’s going to reinforce that worry, it’s going to make you worry more.  Someone commented on one of my videos “If you stop worrying about this, it means you’re not taking care of this, so this is going to be a disaster and it’s gonna be your fault entirely.” 

So your brain believes worry protects you. One day, after I learned some of these skills to stop the constant worry I was driving down the road one day, not worrying, and realizing how good it felt t not feel so anxious, and then out of the blue I was struck by a very loud thought “What if I get too comfortable and happy, and then something bad happens. What if God has to send some trials because I was feeling too happy?” And as soon as I noticed that thought, I literally laughed out loud- because I know exactly what that thought is- a worry, trying to convince me to keep it. I don’t actually believe that God is like that, and I don’t actually believe that worrying prevents bad things from happening. But this is the exact reason why my brain likes to worry- it believes that worrying is keeping me safe. This is faulty thinking.

How To Stop Worrying

But if you tell someone to stop worrying-what will they say? “It’s not that easy. I wish I could. I feel like I have to.” or  “That’s just putting my head in the sand.” 

But even though it seems impossible, this is a skill that you can learn. Let me teach you how. 

Also I need to give credit to Nick Wignall for really condensing a lot of this psychology into practical actionable skills. If you’d like to learn more, please check out his course “worry free”.

OK, so step #1. You need to know the difference between a worry and worrying. There are two types of thoughts- 1- the type that just pop in and out of your head all day. Your brain is a word machine, it is going to make random thoughts all the time. The second type is something we engage with, it’s active thinking. Engaging in a behavior, thinking is something we’re doing.  

We use 2 different skills for the two different types of thinking.

For the random, pop in thoughts, those automatic thoughts, it doesn’t help to engage with them, but it also doesn’t help to struggle against them. If a worry thought pops into your head, just notice it, say “hey brain, thanks for making that worry thought. Moving on…” So with worry thoughts, we use cognitive defusion.

Don’t struggle against your worry thoughts, that just makes them sticker. 

Scheduled worry

But worrying- that’s a different thing- worrying is when you’re allowing your mind to dwell on troubles, worrying is the action of turning a problem over and over in your mind. It’s when we engage with worry thoughts and keep thinking them. 

To control anxiety, we need to set boundaries on our worrying. 

Let’s think about worrying as if it were a train. When a train is moving, it’s got a ton of momentum. If you try to stop a train it’s super hard, impossible to do quickly, but it’s relatively easy to direct a train to a specific track- you can channel that train into a different direction. 

We’re going to take that worrying energy, and tell it when and where it’s allowed to go, using a skill called scheduled worry. So,  

  1. Plan a time each day when you are going to sit down and worry for 15-30 minutes, use a consistent time. This is an exercise, not a coping skill, we are strengthening your brain’s ability to set boundaries, not just trying to “feel better” so you need to be consistent if you want to develop these brain-boundary-muscles. Choose a time that you can be consistent and I don’t recommend early morning or late evening, and don’t do it in your bed or some other relaxing place. This is your worry time, do it at the kitchen counter or something. It’s easier to tell your brain when and where to worry, than to tell it to not worry.
  2. During this time, write down your worries. Putting them down on paper makes them more concrete, and it shows your brain that you’re serious, that you’ll address these worries – so it doesn’t have to keep reminding you throughout the day. 
  3. If you’d like, you can clarify some of your worries. You can also choose if there is one or two things you want to plan to take action on, perhaps there is a problem you need to solve. (I’m going to stick to a budget this week by using the envelope system), but this exercise isn’t about problem solving. The goal here is to tell your brain “THIS is when I worry!” 
  4. When your timer goes off, step away, leave the paper and the space and go do something different. It can be nice to call a friend, go for a walk, play with your dogs, whatever is engaging for you. 
  5. Your next worry session is in 24 hours, in the meantime, when a worry comes up, you want to notice it and redirect it. Something like this: “Ohh hi there worry, let’s talk at 6 today ok?” and then redirect your attention to what you do want to be doing in the present moment- what do you care about? Your work? The people around you? Shift your attention to them. If a worry pops up say “Thanks for telling me. Those are some really strong worries. Let’s talk about them at 6” and go back to your values. Right now I want to be playing with my kids. Right now I want to be noticing the sunset.  With our minds, we need to redirect our attention to the present moment and our values. What we want our life to be about, instead of dwelling on future fears or allowing worrying to take over. 

Again, remember, this isn’t a coping skill, this is an exercise. If you find yourself feeling bloated and get winded easily- you might start exercising physically. When you find yourself drowning in anxiety, this is the exercise to do for a few weeks to a month. Do it for 3 weeks minimum, every single day, at a scheduled time, not as a coping skill for when you feel worried. 

Can I Use Distraction To Help Me Stop Worrying?

In general, distraction is not a helpful long term solution.  So for example, if you start worrying during the day and constantly turn to your phone to avoid your worries, that phone usage, that distraction is going to interfere with your ability to live your values, to engage with people or do your work. It’s also a form of avoidance that signals to your brain that the worry thought is important and your brain will make it louder. Distraction feeds worrying and avoidance in the long run. And it makes your life less meaningful, less vibrant. 

However, in the short term, you can use limited distraction paired with scheduled worry to train your brain. So for example, if you’re struggling to set boundaries on your worries when you’re trying to fall asleep, listening to a moderately boring audiobook might help your brain redirect away from worrying. “I will think about that tomorrow at 6” and redirect your attention to your audiobook.  This really is a fine line, in the long run distraction won’t be that helpful, but you can use it to break the worry habit in the short term if you pair it with scheduled worry. 

The long-term skill that will help here is mindfulness, the ability to control your attention. But we’ll talk about that in the next video.

Benefits:

So here’s what you can expect from practicing the skill of scheduled worry- 

  1. You’re going to spend less time worrying. The majority of your worrying will happen at once, leaving much more of your day worry free.
  2. By being intentional, you might be able to solve some problems
  3. Worrying on purpose will decrease chronic anxiety and stress. Your body is really well adapted to short term stress, it’s ok to get anxious or worked up in short bursts, it’s the chronic stress that is harmful. So by worrying all at once, you give your body a chance to relax and regulate throughout the day. 

OK, so go ahead and schedule a time and place to worry, every day for 3 weeks. I’m so excited for you to learn to set boundaries on your worrying and get healthier! 

If you want to learn more about anxiety, click on the link below. 

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