Are you caught in a worry trap?

Learn to sit comfortably with your fears for tomorrow and reclaim your today, writes Kellie Gillespie-Wright.

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We’ve all been there: tossing and turning at 3am, overwhelmed by a flood of worries and imaginary disasters. Ruminating over things that will probably never happen, and filling our minds with ‘what ifs’. It can feel like you are stuck in a loop of negative thoughts that can easily spiral out of control, as you lie catastrophising until the sun comes up.

Worries, doubts and anxieties are a normal part of life. It’s natural to think about an unpaid bill or an upcoming job interview. However, constant, habitual worrying, negative thinking, and always expecting the worst can take a toll on your emotional and physical health.

‘Habitual worrying can impact both our mental and physical health in a similar way to anxiety and stress,’ says Dr Sheri Jacobson, founder of Harley Therapy. ‘In the short and medium term, this can manifest as headaches, stomach pains, and muscle tension. It can impact concentration, mood, appetite, libido, sleep, and relationships.

In addition, there are long-term risks to our bodily systems, be it cardiovascular, digestive, immune, nervous, or respiratory.’ And because excessive worry robs us of the ability to appreciate the present moment, it stops us from being able to enjoy our lives. As the old adage goes, ‘Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles – it takes away today’s peace’.

But why do some of us worry more than others? ‘Various factors can be at play,’ says Dr Jacobson. ‘While our genetic inheritance might predispose us, it is widely believed that early childhood experiences, including with primary caregivers and our surrounding environment, are a determining factor in how much we worry.’

Often, worries seem to come from an overactive imagination, and worriers are usually people obsessed with the future. They spend their time thinking about what might happen, rather than what is happening, and as the future never comes, their worries are never alleviated. ‘Safety behaviours such as avoidance of people or places also perpetuate the cycle of worry, because we reinforce the message that the situation warrants escape,’ says Dr Jacobson.

‘We then don’t build up the skills of tolerance and the confidence to withstand discomfort. Our negative thoughts are not challenged, and our bodies respond in the same way, as if threatened. That all keeps us stuck in a loop.’

Those of us who worry excessively are also said to be intolerant of uncertainty. The possibility that bad things could happen makes us uncomfortable, so we attempt to prevent the not-knowing by trying to consider every negative eventuality.

‘Being unable to withstand uncertainty gives us more material to churn over, and can fuel the cycle of worry,’ says Dr Jacobson. ‘When we can’t endure the unpredictability, our thoughts are more negative, our bodies more reactive, and there is more need to reach for unhelpful coping behaviours that exacerbate the cycle.’

And it gets worse, because focusing on possible threats produces a negative bias in our thinking. This means that we are more likely to perceive normal events as potentially dangerous, and to jump to negative conclusions. Worry creates the illusion of control, however, it does not give us the certainty we are seeking, and we never feel reassured.

In fact, there is no benefit in anticipating unlikely negative scenarios – doing so creates far more problems than it solves. But, still, roughly half of us spend our waking moments worrying about things, and although research from the University of California indicates that up to 90 per cent of what we worry about never happens, many people continue compulsively playing the ‘what if?’ game.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we continue to obsess about outcomes that, in all likelihood, will never even come to pass? And how can we stop? Let’s break it down… Worry is essentially a cognitive activity. It is our brain’s attempt to predict and prepare for future challenges, which isn’t always a bad thing. But when it becomes incessant, this habitual worry, reinforced each time we give in to it, becomes increasingly difficult to overcome.

Paying attention to present and future threats feels protective, and habitual worriers find it hard to resist the urge to worry – because not worrying makes them feel vulnerable. Habitual worriers may also believe, for instance, that worrying helps them to anticipate and solve problems; that it provides the motivation necessary to tackle those problems; or that it prepares them for the worst if a solution can’t be found.

As one friend put it: ‘If I expect some disaster and it doesn’t happen, then I will feel relieved. And if it does happen, then at least I will have prepared myself, so I won’t be too distressed.’ While this type of thinking might appear to be logical, it is actually irrational – since most of our worries never materialise, we end up causing ourselves needless distress.

And as long as part of us believes that worry is protective, and to not worry is dangerous, we will always be resistant to letting it go. If this sounds familiar, it’s useful to remember a handful of key facts, such as that worry does not protect you or give you control, or prevent bad things from happening. In fact, worrying on its own makes absolutely no difference at the end of the day.

Learning to challenge these kinds of beliefs can be a huge step forward, but if you are a habitual worrier, then that’s a lot easier said than done. Changing ways of thinking that have been with you for years requires self-awareness and motivation, but there are steps you can take right now to interrupt all those anxious thoughts, lower your stress, and give yourself a time-out from relentless worrying. The first step to conquering worry is recognising its presence.

Often, worry is so ingrained in our thought process that we don’t even notice it, so it’s crucial to identify the triggers that contribute to your anxiety. These triggers can vary greatly from person to person, but common sources of worry include work-related stress, financial concerns, relationship issues, and health problems.

By becoming aware of what specifically triggers your worry, you can better understand the underlying causes and work towards addressing them. Keep a worry diary and begin by identifying when and where you worry most. Make a list of what’s bothering you and, next to each thing, write down what you can do about it.

Often, you will find that there are some things that you can do nothing about, but simply having that fact in writing, and being able to look at it, can provide closure on the matter. This will help you to challenge your thoughts and question the basis of your worries: are they rooted in reality or unfounded fears? What’s the evidence that the thought is true? That it’s not true? What’s the probability that what you’re scared of will actually happen? If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?

Usually, contesting the legitimacy of our worries like this is enough to diminish them, but setting aside specific times for worry can also help manage it. For instance, nominate half an hour each day for worry, such as 8-8:30pm and use this time to examine the reality of your worries. Question their validity and consider alternative, more positive perspectives.

During your worry period, challenge your negative thoughts by asking yourself, ‘Is the thought helpful? How will worrying about it help me, and how will it hurt me?’ Or, ‘What would I say to a friend who had this worry?’ And when you feel a worry coming on throughout the day, remind yourself to put it out of your mind until ‘worry-time’.

Learning to step back and observe our thoughts mindfully, without buying into them, can cognitively defuse the worrying cycle and separate ourselves from those thoughts – and by doing this ‘we can become more resilient to upsetting events, problematic situations, and even our own automatic negative thoughts when they do arise,’ says Dr Jacobson. Regular exercise helps, too, because it not only releases endorphins but also diverts attention from whatever is causing you to worry.

Discussing your worries with friends or family can also help alleviate mental burdens and offer new perspectives. Accepting uncertainty is crucial, too, as some problems defy solutions, and learning to live with this uncertainty is key to overcoming chronic worry. But if worry is still significantly disrupting your life, seeking professional help, such as through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can be instrumental in altering problematic thought patterns.

Most importantly, focusing on what you can control, rather than on what you can’t, will redirect your energy from worrying towards taking constructive action. ‘Various techniques work for different people, so you can experiment with a few or create your own to see what is most helpful,’ says Dr Jacobson. She recommends ‘discovering the most effective techniques for you and prioritising them as ongoing healthy habits.

If you can build upon the worry-quelling practices (for example, mindfulness, perspective-taking, regular exercise, and time in nature) that work for you, the more you will be equipped to face future worries as they arise.’ And, remember: the objective isn’t to eradicate worry completely but to prevent it from dominating your life – it’s about progress, not perfection.

Next steps

Read: No Worries: A Guide To Releasing Anxiety And Worry Using CBT by Sarah Edelman (ABC Books, £12.99).

Watch: There’s No Need To Worry (Guided Meditation) on YouTube

• Listen: Stop Worrying! Listen To This on the Mel Robbins podcast, via YouTube

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