Worrying has become a national pastime. Whether you're worrying about repaying your college loan, having job stability in an unstable economy or making sure your toddler hits all the developmental milestones at the right times, there's no shortage of material for mind sweat.
According to The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental diagnosis in the United States. They cost the country $42 billion a year, and go hand-in-hand with depression. People with an anxiety disorder are also three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric illness.
Especially for those of us interested in wellness, it can almost feel tiring to be told the importance of "letting go," "relaxing" and "unwinding." While this advice is ultimately right, there's also good reason we might feel inclined to resist it. The simple reason? Biology: all of our brains are wired to worry.
Basically, the same brain circuits that make for super human intelligence in our frontal lobes (allowing decision making, problem solving, and planning) also produce worry. For your brain, the only difference between worrying and planning is the amount of emotional involvement and self-oriented processing in a specific part of the brain. Of course, we all know worrying is charged with more negative emotions.
But your brain's number one priority is keeping you alive, and it's evolved to do that very well. Sometimes, worrying is the body's response to danger, an evolutionary mechanism to keep you alive.
But you can take concrete steps to climb out of the worry trap. You have to learn to soothe and guide your thinking brain and calm it's fear circuit. Here are some ways to begin:
1. Cultivate greater awareness about your emotions.
The first step to decreasing worry is to recognize when you're doing it. Becoming aware of your emotional state as it occurs enlists your thinking frontal cortex and suppresses the fight or flight amygdala response. In the study Putting Feelings Into Words, when participants simply labeled an emotion, their brains calmed down.
2. Take a deep breath (ideally many of them).
Taking slow, deep breaths through your nose into your diaphragm with slow exhales turns down your nervous system and reduces your body's stress response. This advice is undoubtedly not the most original, but that doesn't mean it's not effective. Think of it this way: if your breathing and heart rate naturally speed up when you are under stress, you can choose to reverse your response — by breathing slowly. This will send your body the message "I am relaxed," and you will become more relaxed as a result. It's like magic, with science.
3. Don't look back or forward.
When you find your mind drifting into the past or future, come back to the present moment, right here right now — a practice known as mindfulness. In this moment, you are OK. Your thoughts are creating your sense of danger. Bringing your awareness back into the now calms the fearful amygdala in your brain and activates your thinking neural circuits. Studies show that with repetition, mindfulness practice can lead to long term, lasting reduction of anxiety and worrying.
4. Pay attention only to what you can control.
Your brain craves control and feels happier and calmer when it just feels more in control — even if it's just an illusion. Feeling in control can reduce anxiety, worrying, and even pain. So, avoid imagining the worst possible scenarios, and instead pay more attention to what is in your control, which modulates brain activity to reduce anxiety.
5. Make a decision, even if you don't really want to.
Simply making a decision about whatever it is that you're worrying invokes your thinking brain, increases dopamine levels, and shifts your brain's perceptual focus on the things that matter the most. Making a decision — any decision — also elevates your perceived control giving your confidence and mood a boost which helps you to take positive action.
6. Go for good enough.
Worrying is often triggered by imposing unrealistic or perfectionist expectations on yourself or others. Don't aim for being the perfect parent; just be a good one. Your kid doesn't have to get into an Ivy League college. They just need to go to college. You don't have to be model thin. You just want to be healthy.
The problem with worry arises when the brain anxiety-circuits activate too frequently and get stuck in the "on" position continually which triggers the body's fear response. This then activates the stress response — which starts a downward spiral ... making you a miserable mess. So rather than make yourself more stressed out by worrying-about-worrying, think of worry as your brain just doing its job. You just don't want it to get too enthusiastic.