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The Weird Worry Cycle: Why We Worry and What to Do About It

✎ Written by: Denisa Cerna ✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


“What if…?”


This is a question you probably asked yourself at some point or another. What if your worst fears come true? What if you’re not up to the challenge?

Before you know it, the worrying gets so overwhelming that you’re going down the rabbit hole, engulfed in all the worst-case scenarios you can think of.

You’re not alone.

In fact, an anxiety disorder (persistent and excessive worry or fear that can interfere with daily life) is among the most common mental health disorders in the USA. Of course, an anxiety disorder isn’t a prerequisite for worrying - some people worry only occasionally, but it might still impact their well-being.

While worrying is incredibly challenging to deal with, there is a way out. Today, we’ll explore:

Why We Worry

It might not feel like it, but worrying is actually your body’s way of protecting you.

Researchers explain that fear and anxiety are a primal response to danger, motivating you to run, fight, or freeze in order to confront a perceived threat. Your amygdala – the brain’s emotional center – functions as an alarm, triggering this response any time it senses a potential threat.

Worrying about things you can’t change puts you in the same state of perceived danger as our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced, even though there is no actual life-threatening crisis that immediately needs dealing with.

Luckily, your brain has the incredible ability to rewire itself, forming new connections and adapting its functioning to learn, grow, and recover, enabling you to continuously evolve and adapt throughout your life. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity and it means that excessive worry doesn’t have to be something you’ll live with forever.

First things first, though – why do we worry to begin with?

We want to feel prepared for negative outcomes

It’s very common for us to worry as a way to minimize the effect of negative events on our well-being. We might think that if we imagine the worst-case scenario and go on to actually experience it in reality, it will be less of a shock and more of a confirmation.

Some studies do show that since worrying sustains negative emotions for a longer period of time, it prevents a sharp increase in negative affect. You simply don’t feel as crushed when your fears come true.

But worrying has its downsides. Getting stuck in ruminating loops and catastrophizing are cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns that portray reality inaccurately and can create a constant state of fear and apprehension, leading to heightened anxiety levels.

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, says:

“These unhelpful filters [cognitive distortions] make whatever life circumstances we find ourselves in much more anxiety-provoking and challenging.”

In the end, worrying might feel like you’re prepared for life’s challenges, but you’re actually dealing with them less effectively. For instance, worrying about failing an exam might make it more difficult to study for it.

We struggle to cope with uncertainty

Uncertainty is closely linked to affect. Naturally, not knowing what’ll happen can make us feel out of control, which might increase negative emotions and give rise to worry and stress.

As Heimberg et al. write in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (page 152), the higher your intolerance of uncertainty, the more you’re likely to worry. People with high worry levels tend to overexaggerate the negative outcomes of uncertain situations, coming up with a variety of explanations for why a negative event might occur.

Which brings us to…

We think it’ll help us find effective solutions

We are natural problem solvers. When faced with an issue, we automatically brainstorm all possible solutions.

But there’s a difference between effective problem-solving (“How will I go about fixing this?”) and excessive worrying (“What if something bad happens?”).

Furthermore, studies show that worrying actually impairs the problem-solving process, increasing cognitive load and clouding your judgment with negative emotions.

What Worrying Does to Our Bodies

Chronic worrying goes hand in hand with some very negative impacts on our physical health:

Fortunately, there are some things you can start doing right now that might help you stop worrying about things you can’t control.

How to Stop Worrying So Much

In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie says, “The only certainty is today.”

The key to everything that follows lies in those five words.

Live in day-tight compartments

In his book, Carnegie mentions a strategy developed by Sir William Osler that revolves around living in “day-tight compartments”.

Osier only ever focused on the day ahead because that was the only day he had control over. To quote Carnegie:

“The best possible way to prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm, on doing today’s work superbly.”

Beat cognitive distortions by using reason and logic

Remember how we said that excessive worry is a type of cognitive distortion, or irrational thought pattern? Well, there are ways to overcome these distortions and change your thought patterns in times of doubt.

When you find yourself stuck in a worry cycle, ask yourself the following:

  • Are you jumping to irrational conclusions? For example, you might think that you’ll fail your driving license test. But what’s the evidence? Your last few practice runs went very well. Your instructor said they think you can do it. Try to see the situation holistically in order to make an informed prediction. From what you’ve gathered, it looks like you have a high chance of passing your test.

  • Are you magnifying the negative and disregarding the positive? Your boss might have been a bit curt with you today because you came in late, but that doesn’t mean they hate you. Take account of all the other things that make you an amazing employee. When viewed from a distance, the positives outweigh the negatives.

  • What’s the worst that could happen? If you didn’t get enough work done today, the worst-case scenario is that you’ll stay at work for a bit longer tomorrow. It’s not great, but it’s definitely manageable. This line of thinking may help put your worrying on stop.

Calm your nervous system by returning to the Now

Every time you feel yourself spiraling, the best way to stop worrying is to return your nervous system to a calm and neutral state.

Here are three different strategies you can try:

Trust your future self to deal with whatever comes their way and focus on what you can do in the present moment

As mentioned above, worrying is rooted in not knowing. Will you be able to deal with a specific issue if it ever occurs? Will you have what it takes? Or will everything go up in flames?

When you worry, you may find great relief in realizing that the future is not your responsibility. It’s up to your future self to deal with those issues, not you as you are now. There’s something freeing about giving up a sense of control and passing it onto a future version of you with loving trust.

And if you don’t believe your future self is up to the challenge, we encourage you to think back to all the obstacles you’ve overcome just to stand here today, reading these words. Challenges that seemed impossible are now way behind you, and you barely even think about them.

Use the power of retrospection to your advantage. Your past self has proven they can do it, so your future self can do it, too.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t take action in the present moment. On the contrary, taking responsibility for your mental health now can help you grow and flourish over time.

Therefore:

  • Pass the problem you can’t solve right now onto your future self.

  • Focus on what you can do, which is taking care of your well-being in the here and now.

Here are four strategies to achieve this balance:

  1. Prioritize self-care and well-being: Take responsibility for taking care of your physical and mental health in the present. Engage in activities that promote well-being, such as exercise, nutritious eating, and stress management. Trust that your future self will benefit from the care and attention you give yourself now.

  2. Practice self-reflection: Regularly reflect on your progress and outcomes to evaluate whether your current actions align with your desired future. Assess areas where you might need to adjust your approach or take additional responsibility to ensure positive outcomes. Use past experiences as lessons to inform your decisions and behaviors going forward

  3. Develop a growth mindset: Adopt a growth mindset, which is the belief that your abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. View challenges as opportunities for learning and growth rather than as insurmountable obstacles. Emphasize the process of learning and improvement rather than focusing solely on the outcomes.

  4. Foster flexibility and adaptability: Build your capacity to adapt by intentionally exposing yourself to new experiences, ideas, and perspectives. Seek out opportunities that challenge your comfort zone and encourage flexibility.

Conclusion

Let’s recap! Every time you find yourself worrying, remind yourself of our four Rs:

Realize why you’re worrying. Your brain is trying to protect you by preparing you for negative outcomes, giving you a sense of control over the unknown, or making you feel like anxiety is the best way to find a solution.

Recognize that worrying is not an effective problem-solving tool. On the contrary, it impairs cognitive function and has a negative impact on your health.

Remember our advice on how to stop worrying. Live in day-tight compartments. If there’s a problem, ask yourself if you can do something about it right now. If not, pass the responsibility onto your future self. In the meantime, calm your nervous system via breathing techniques, meditation, or neurofeedback training, and focus on taking care of your well-being so that you can flourish over time.

Recall Carnegie’s five words: “The only certainty is today.”

Worrying is a tricky beast, so try to remain self-compassionate during your journey. It might not be easy, but the final destination is worth it.

Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you achieve your goals towards reaching improved focus and calm. Check if you’re eligible to kick start your journey with us for better brain health from here.


 

About the author:

Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

References:


Anderson, E. C., Carleton, R. N., Diefenbach, M., & Han, P. K. 2019. The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 469966.


Bettino, Kate. Medically reviewed by Boland, Matthew, PhD. Anxiety Facts: All You Need to Know. PsychCentral. 2021.


Carnegie, Dale. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. 2019. Jaico Publishing House. Pages 1 & 8.


Freeston, Mark H et al. Why do people worry? Personality and Individual Differences. Volume 17, Issue 6. 1994. Pages 791-802.


Grinspoon, Peter. How to recognize and tame your cognitive distortions. 2022. Harvard Health Publishing.


Heimberg, Richard G., Turk, Cynthia L., Mennin, Douglas S. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. 2004. The Guilford Press. Page 152.


Llera SJ, Newman MG. Worry impairs the problem-solving process: Results from an experimental study. Behav Res Ther. 2020 Dec;135:103759.


Mental Health Foundation. Anxiety: Statistics. 2023. Mentalhealth.org.uk.


National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation and Mindfulness: What You Need To Know. 2022. Nccih.nig.gov.


Newman MG, Jacobson NC, Zainal NH, Shin KE, Szkodny LE, Sliwinski MJ. The Effects of Worry in Daily Life: An Ecological Momentary Assessment Study Supporting the Tenets of the Contrast Avoidance Model. Clin Psychol Sci. 2019 Jul;7(4):794-810.


Puderbaugh, Matt, Emmandy, Prabhu D. Neuroplasticity. 2023. StatPearls Publishing.


Steimer T. The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2002 Sep;4(3):231-49.


Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017 Jul 21;16:1057-1072.


Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 409421.


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