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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Training the Brain to Stop Worrying

Do you get stuck in your worries? Worry refers to thoughts, emotions, and images of a negative future. Often, we mistakenly believe that worry is useful in helping prevent undesired future events—to prepare or think through how we'll respond—but excessive worry only propagates future worry and is not really a useful coping strategy. If you worry often, you are not alone. In fact, 38% of people worry about something everyday.


Some worries can be good to keep us safe and healthy, so we don’t take life threatening risks everyday. However, if you worry about all the bad things that could happen, often imagining worst-case scenarios, and you have anxious thoughts that interfere with your ability to do regular things, like sleep, eat, enjoy friends, etc, then worrying has become a problem for you. Fortunately, you don't have to resign yourself to being a lifelong "worry-wart." You can take control of your mind and train your brain to think differently.


Here are some effective methods for managing worry:


Exercise

If you’re at home, get up and get moving. Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment because it releases endorphins which relieve tension and stress, boost energy, and enhance your sense of well-being. Even more importantly, by really focusing on how your body feels as you move, you can interrupt the constant flow of worries running through your head. Pay attention to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground as you walk, run, or dance.


Meditate

If you’re at work, meditate for 1-2 minutes. Meditation works by switching your focus from worrying about the future or dwelling on the past to what’s happening right now. By being fully engaged in the present moment, you can interrupt the endless loop of negative thoughts and worries.

  • Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Let your eyes close.

  • Draw a slow breath into your lungs for a count of four, pause briefly, and exhale for a count of eight.

  • As you breathe, feel your shoulders drop and your weight press into your chair.

  • Repeat this for three to five inbreaths and outbreaths.


Write down how you feel and potential solutions (if applicable)

Writing down your feelings, what worries you, and brainstorming solutions is more valuable than you may think. There’s something about getting the thoughts literally out of your head and onto paper that helps you deal with them more objectively. This action lets your brain breathe a mental sigh of relief and it’s an effective way to analyze your answers for practical solutions. Committing your emotions to paper seems like it would fuel anxiety, but according to a University of Chicago study published in the journal Science, it actually has the opposite effect: students who were prone to pre-test anxiety and journaled about their fears before an exam improved their test scores by nearly one grade point.


If you’re worrying about everything you have to do the next day, write down how you feel and then create a schedule for what needs to get done tomorrow. Of course not all your worries have solutions that are in your control so be sure to first identify whether or not you have control over what worries you. Meditation can help us become less stressed when things are not in your control as well. When we let go of what we can’t control, we can focus on what’s actually in front of us. Life can flow with a little more ease this way.


Write down what you’re grateful for.

Take a few moments to consider some things in your life that you appreciate. Who, what, and where fills you with a sense of gratitude. Research suggests that when we take note of and cultivate increased appreciation in our lives, we feel happier and more optimistic about our lives. Try listing three things that made you feel good each day, or at the end of every week. It can be as small as the cup of coffee you had in the morning.


You won’t be able to eliminate all your worries altogether but the key thing is to manage the worries so it doesn’t take over your life. If worrying is a problem that you feel you cannot control, it is important to seek professional help.


You can learn more about how our mind creates stories in our head that lead us to worry and what you can do about it on the latest podcast episode of A Mindful Moment with Teresa McKee. Click here to listen.

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