As we face uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead, worry can become a pervasive and debilitating habit. We will all encounter adversity in life at different times and it’s likely there are hurdles to face ahead, but it’s also true that many of the things we worry about don’t actually eventuate. This means that the habit of worry, which uses up precious mental and physical energy, could be put to use in more effective ways.
If you’re a chronic worrier, it’s generally not possible to just flick a switch and turn the volume down on worrying thoughts, however, there are mindful practices that will help you train your brain to be adept at catching worry when it starts and better manage it.
Before you begin, it’s helpful to make a distinction between the kind of thinking that is helpful problem-solving thinking vs worry. For the most part, the first kind of thinking involves reflecting and finding practical steps to address an existing problem. This thinking is generally focused on a specific issue and has an end-point. Worry, on the other hand, is habitual thinking with a strong negative bias. It’s often repetitive and unproductive, without any clear end-point in sight. Worry can sometimes be reframed into problem-solving. For example, in the case of COVID-19, our minds may be in a spin worrying about the uncertainties, but we can also move into practical problem-solving at an individual level.
Help take control of your worrying thoughts by engaging in the following five exercises.
1. Practise ‘worry time’
‘Worry time’ is a cognitive-behavioural therapy practice, backed by research that helps you to control the frequency and duration of worrying thoughts.
Set aside between fifteen and twenty minutes at a regular time each day and during your ‘worry time’, write down all of your most prominent worrying thoughts. If worry is fairly pervasive for you, you may find it helpful to do two sessions of ‘worry time’ each day — one first thing in the morning and the other before dinner each night. It’s preferable not to leave this practice until too late in the day. Worrying before bedtime is likely to keep you awake.
Don’t try to completely solve all of your worries during your ‘worry time’. The key is to get them out of your head onto paper so they’re not taking up so much of your mental energy. As you write, you may find that you naturally reflect on a couple of practical steps that will help you address one of your most pressing concerns.
2. Get to know your worry patterns
After a week of the ‘worry time’ practice, look over your lists and make a note of any patterns you notice. Most of us find that we have several main areas of worry. Consider whether there are practical ways to deal with these concerns or if they continue to persist, talk to your GP or counsellor about getting some one-on-one support.
3. Lock away your worrying thoughts
Outside of your worry times, try to catch your brain as it brings up worrying thoughts and say to yourself, ‘I’m worrying.’ When a worry persists, visualise putting that thought into a ‘worry box’ and locking it away until later in the day.
It’s likely that you’ll find this difficult at first, but remind yourself that you’re training your brain to be more cognisant and resourceful, rather than allowing it to continue in its old habitual patterns. Be mindful not to beat yourself up when you do notice worry popping up.
4. Reduce negative energy and embrace a sense of lightness in life
If locking away your thoughts doesn’t work for you, try the following exercise to physically brush away negative energy. While it may sound slightly silly at first, it’s helpful to remember that we carry our worries in our bodies as well as our minds. This fun strategy will help reduce negative energy and also remind you to embrace a sense of lightness in life.
In a standing position and preferably outdoors (or at least facing a window), run your hands along either side of your spine from the upper back down toward your hips and as your hands reach your buttocks, ‘flick’ them forward and upward, brushing your worries away towards the sky. Next, run your hands down across your chest toward your hips and flick away out to the sides. Then brush your hands across the rest of your body in the same way (include your head, face, neck, arms, legs and all the way down to your feet), imagining that you’re literally brushing away any negative energy that has gathered on and around your body.
Pay attention to how you feel at the end of this exercise — if you’re like most people, you’ll feel lighter in your physical being.
5. Physically relax to help your mind to relax
Because it’s difficult to create a quiet mind when we have tension in the body, you may find that engaging in a deep relaxation process will help to bring your body and mind into a state of calm. My favourite way of doing this is to use a guided yoga nidra meditation. Despite its name, this practice doesn’t involve any yoga poses but rather, it’s a guided relaxation meditation that is practised lying down. You can use it before sleep or as an excellent way to obtain some rest during the day.