Bogged down by worry, eh?

stop overthinking

Bogged down by worry, eh?

Entertain yourself with some stories about all the bad things that could happen. Embellish them with details.

Start each thought, where possible, with “what if” and then come up with every probable horrible outcome. Keep repeating them to yourself, each time trying to figure out if you left out something important. As you can’t rely on your memory, you come up with all of the possibilities and then dwell on them.

Worry is a constant in life. Done right,  it motivates you to look into an issue carefully and take it head on. But often, it turns into a misuse of imagination. It becomes a problem if there is a pattern whereby one issue, when dealt with, is quickly replaced by another. If this is experienced regularly, causing excessive levels of anxiety or stress, it may feel like a whirlwind of worry.

Clarified perspective is something that is absent when you think a lot and this is what turns into worry. Thinking should not consume you or rob you of your joy, but mature your perceptions and help you analyse situations. However, there is no expedient to which man will not go to avoid the real labour of thinking.

Thinking per se isn’t wrong but ‘thinking about thinking’ is futile. If you can get by thinking as little as possible and as much as required, then you are lucky. The productive state where time disappears isn’t really about not thinking. It’s more to do with not ‘thinking about thinking’.

Delicious spells of not thinking

Civilisation advances by expanding the number of important operations that we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle – strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses and must only be made at decisive moments. Athletes in their zone, ecstatic worshippers in the spirit, movie-goers and novel readers engrossed in the story, gardeners pruning their trees, are in the bliss of no time, no stress. They are completely present yet engaged in thinking that doesn’t take a toll on their brain.

How do you achieve this state when all the time most of us are susceptible to constant worrying? We assume that ‘worry’ helps us to plan and prepare. However, real preparation requires action.

If you’re scared of public speaking, taking on a job that involves giving speeches every day will help you become less nervous and more confident in a month’s time. Either do something about your worry or let it go, don’t pointlessly dwell on it.

Worrying itself isn’t wrong but doing so without actually being able to do anything about it is a waste of time and energy. If thinking about a situation makes it adaptive and functional then its worth it. If you’re travelling to Bali from India, worrying is useful as it propels you to book flight and make hotel reservations on time. If your worry can turn into an action plan or a to-do list for the day, then your headed in the right direction.

How do you know you’re not indulging in baseless worrying ?

It doesn’t claim certainty.
It’s not paralysed by emotion.
It turns a worry into a specific problem to be solved.
It delves into befitting ways of finding a solution to a problem.
It doesn’t get embroiled in evaluating unrealistic outcomes.
It outcasts those worries that can’t be solved until a point in time in the future.
It’s temporary and can be terminated in a short duration.
It embraces things going wrong as an inevitable part of life.

Not thinking about it

The popular “white bear experiment” in 1987 highlighted the paradoxical effect of trying not to think about something. When subjects were told to avoid thinking about white bears, they complained of increased white bear images popping into their minds. Trying to suppress your worrisome thoughts may add to your distress. Accept that you feel anxious and your intrusive thoughts may actually recede.

Conduct a vis-a- vis comparison

This is similar to comparing products as a smart consumer. You compare worry to the real facts, and pick the scenario that’s deserving of your time and attention.
Try asking yourself two questions: “What is the worry telling me about this situation? “What can actually happen and why?”

For instance, let’s say you have a job interview and you worry that you’re going to goof up big time. You worry you’ll go blank and have nothing to say. When you consider the facts, you might realise that you’re not likely to totally mess up. You may forget something here and there,  but you still have a lot to say. It’s not likely that you’ll draw a blank. But if you do, you can manage it. And if you are not dreading it or anticipating it, it’s less likely to happen anyway.

Worry triggers fear, while facts yield perspective and simmer you down. Refocus on the rational.

If your anxious feelings are leading to catastrophic predictions, practise active problem solving rather than passive worrying. Does it really matter in the big scheme of things? Maybe not.

Many a time, a worry just fills your time and you will realise that it isn’t productive. It just appears to be so. You don’t know for sure that your prediction will come true now, do you?

Worry scripting

Preventing yourself from thinking about certain worries can promote them further. So create a script where you list down your worries and set them in order of priority. Rank all your worries from the least anxiety-provoking to the most anxiety-provoking to create an exposure hierarchy.

Pick a worry that causes you 30% anxiety or what psychologists call subjective units of distress. Write your worry on sheet of paper in as much detail as possible and explain every sensation you feel about it. Doing so will help you see what triggers the worry and hence not get carried away the next time you feel those emotions when the trigger presents itself.

When used as a tool for planning ahead, worry can be productive. There has to be an evolutionary purpose for worrying. Probably to encourage humans to envisage by thinking about various outcomes. While 90% of your worries are unlikely or unimportant, there are real-world problems that need to be solved in your daily life. Let us cut down on wasting time and happiness on things that will never occur. Like Montaigne remarked “My life has been full of misfortunes most of which never happened.”

Pose this question to yourself, “What is the probability that this will happen?” If the probability is low, then its not worth the worry. Let go of your worries, do something pleasurable to distract yourself and if your mind drifts back to the worry, redirect it to the pleasant activity that your engaging at present.

There is no golden rule that you require a well-thought out strategy to navigate away from worry. Sometimes, all you need is to go for a walk, knit a scarf, clean your closet – do whatever it takes to stay busy.

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