Once you get started worrying, it can be hard to know how to stop. You might feel like your worry is impossible to control and once you start spiraling, there’s not much you can do. Feeling helpless and unsure what to do only makes things worse..
This post is all about helping you take the first step to getting control.
What is worry? Do I have generalized anxiety?
Let’s start by getting clear on the definition of worry. You have to know what you’re looking for if you’re going to start working with it differently.
Worry is all that negative thinking that leads to anxiety. It tends to be verbal rather than imaginal, so it’s the ongoing narrative self-talk kind of chatter that hums along in our heads. Worry tends to be future oriented rather than focused on the past or the present moment. And it frequently involves “What if…?” kinds of questions or predictions of future negative outcomes.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a diagnosis known for chronic, uncontrollable worry. Compared to people with other kinds of anxiety, people with GAD (pronounced spelled out, G-A-D) tend to have vague, not-well-defined worries about the future. People with excessive worry also tend to have more trouble stopping the worry once they get started compared to other people.
Most research shows that, in general, people with GAD don’t worry about different types of things than other people, but they do tend to worry more about little things like chores around the house, being late to appointments, etc. Common themes include:
- What other people think
- Something bad happening to people you love
- Work or school
People with GAD also experience significant physical symptoms when they worry. To meet criteria for a diagnosis, three of six physical symptoms have to show up more days than not in the last six months. These symptoms include feeling irritable, restless or on edge, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating or your mind going blank, fatigue, muscle tension, or trembling or shaking.
If you’d like to get a sense of if your worry levels are typical or higher than average, you can take an online assessment here. Results from this test might be helpful for a therapist or doctor to know.
Worrying about the future
Worry comes from our ability to think about the future, allowing us to imagine things that might happen. This ability is probably relatively unique in the animal kingdom. Your cat or dog probably doesn’t have much ability to think about the future or to consider multiple possible futures. This ability to project into the future and consider what might be can help us to anticipate and solve problems. However, as humans have evolved this capacity for imagining the future in a way that animals can’t, our anxiety has also increased. Dr. David Barlow calls this “the dark side of intelligence.”
By definition, when you’re worrying you are not in the present moment. Worry is about engaging with possibilities and then reacting to them as if they were actually happening.
How to Stop Worrying
The first step in learning to stop worrying is understanding your own unique worry process. The way to do this is by tracking your worry and collecting some information about what happens when you worry. We’re interested in a few things here. First, we want to understand what your worry triggers. Second, we want to understand how the worry process unfolds.
Some benefits of tracking your worry spirals are:
- Recognizing signs and symptoms of your worry so you can intervene sooner
- Identifying triggers that are likely to prompt your worry, so you can be prepared to use your skills
- Introducing things that make the worry better and disrupt the cycle
- Avoiding things that make the worry worse and keep it going longer
Consider trying this technique to control your worry. Starting today and for the next week, practice collecting information about how your worry spirals unfold.
Start by noticing what triggers the worry. This could be something internal or something external. Examples of an internal trigger might be remembering you have a deadline coming up, mentally reviewing a conversation you had yesterday, or noticing an unusual physical feeling. Examples of external triggers might be getting a text, seeing a pile of laundry you haven’t folded, or having an awkward interaction with someone.
Then, really pay attention to what happens next. What thoughts go through your mind? Do you have a thought like “What if I don’t finish everything in time to meet this deadline? Why do I do this to myself?” or “I wonder what this headache means. What if there’s something really wrong?”
Next, notice what effect that thought has on you. Do you notice butterflies in your stomach or tension in your chest or shoulders? How does your body feel when you have those thoughts? Below is a list of common symptoms linked with worry. Do any of these apply to you?
- Feeling restless
- Feeling on edge
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Waking up too early
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Clenching jaw
- Trouble relaxing
- Feeling shaky
- Need to urinate frequently
- Stomach distress
- Startled easily
- Tired easily
- Dizzy or lightheaded
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in chest
Negative Effects of Worry
Next, what about your behaviors? Do those worries lead you to do (or not do something)? For example, if you have a worry about not finishing things on time, do you distract yourself by going on TikTok or playing a video game? If you worry that your last text was awkward, do you avoid responding?
Notice what happens next. Does this lead to more thoughts, physical feelings, or anxiety?
For example, I might get a bill in the mail from Ameren (the trigger). I might notice that I then have a thought like, “Oh no, what if I can’t afford to pay this?” That thought causes butterflies in my stomach and my chest feels tight (physical feelings) and anxiety. I don’t open the bill because I’m nervous about the cost and I just put it on my desk (avoidance behavior). This might help in the short term because my anxiety doesn’t get worse. But in the long term it keeps my anxiety going because on and off all day long I have worry spirals, thinking, “What if I can’t make the payment? What if I get in trouble? What if they turn off my electricity? What if I can’t pay my other bills? What would people think if they knew I wasn’t paying my bills?” and on and on.
Consider this worry control strategy your homework assignment for the next few days. Collect some information about a few different worry episodes, then review all the information and see what patterns emerge.
Some questions to ask yourself are:
- What are the most common triggers for my worries?
- What themes do I notice about my worry thoughts?
- What are the most common physical symptoms I experience when I worry?
- Does my worry lead me to avoid things? What effect does this have on my anxiety (does it make it better or worse)?
- What’s one thing I could try to interrupt this worry pattern?
I hope this approach is helpful and gives you a new perspective on your worry. If you’d like some help with this or would like more strategies, please send us a message through the website to set up a free consultation with our care coordinator.