Between work problems, personal concerns and all the other stress life throws your way, it’s easy for daily worries to become overwhelming. And while our worries can be helpful — they get us to take action and address our problems — too much worrying can lead to anxiety, which can affect our happiness and our health.
Chronic worrying can interfere with your appetite, relationships, sleep and job performance, and it can even have serious mental and physical consequences like depression, suicidal thoughts, digestive disorders, immune system suppression and heart attacks.
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“The problem with worries is that because they hinge on uncertainty, it is very easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle in which no matter how much we worry and prepare, we still can’t reach 100 percent certainty,” writes psychologist Amelia Aldao. “This makes us feel anxious and, in turn, we respond to that anxiety with more worry, which in turn makes us feel more anxious.”
How do you stop this cycle of worrying? We’ve got seven suggestions to help you take back control of your thoughts.
1. Make a list.
Write down all of your worries on a piece of paper, acknowledging them one by one, and then group them as appropriate. Creating a visual account of the things you’re worried about can help you realize how short the list actually is, especially when you’re able to see that several worries all fall under the same umbrella. You may feel like you’re worrying about hundreds of things, but really there are only a few sources of anxiety.
"It might be counterintuitive, but it's almost as if you empty the fears out of your mind," study researcher Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, told U.S. News. "You reassess that situation so that you're not as likely to worry about those situations because you've slain that beast."
2. Go outside.
Shinrin-yoku, which means “forest bathing” in Japanese, is the practice of spending time in nature, and it’s proven to help you relax.
A Stanford study found that people who spent time in the great outdoors “showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.” Other studies have found that exposure to phytoncides — compounds found in trees such as pines, cedars and oaks — can lower blood pressure, relieve stress and boost white blood cell count.
3. Eat healthy and lay off the caffeine.
Stress affects people in different ways. Some may eat less, others may eat too much, and others may opt to consume unhealthy foods. However, eating poorly can prompt new worries and generally make you feel poorly.
Also, try to avoid caffeine when you’re stressed. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system, which can trigger adrenaline, making you feel more jittery than you already are.
4. Schedule a time to worry.
Setting aside designated time to address your worries can help you take control of your thoughts — instead of letting your worries take over.
“When we're engaged in worry, it doesn't really help us for someone to tell us to stop worrying," said Tom Borkovec, a psychology professor at Penn State University, told LiveScience. "If you tell someone to postpone it for a while, we are able to actually do that.”
So set your worries aside until it’s time to tackle them, and when you do, focus on finding solutions to what plagues you.
Taking up meditation can be a great way to reduce stress and calm your worried mind. Research from Carnegie Mellon University found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes for three consecutive days reported less stress, and a 2014 analysis of meditation studies conclude that the practice is moderately effective in alleviating depression and anxiety.
6. Get busy.
Distracting yourself from your worries can be an effective way to put them to rest. Find a task that will engage both your hands and your mind, such as playing a game or crafting, and focus solely on that. A study by the Medical Research Council found that keeping you brain and your hands busy interferes with storing and encoding images, which explains why worry beads have often been used to deal with stress.
You’re likely used to seeing exercise prescribed to treat everything, but there’s a good reason for that: It works. Regular exercise is a natural anxiety treatment that increases levels of serotonin — which is known as the “happy chemical” — in the brain.