If you can solve the problem,—Shantideva
Then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it,
Then what is the use of worrying?
Everyone has experienced anxious thoughts in their everyday life but what happens when these worrisome thoughts begin to affect your mental health and even your physical well-being? You may be caught in a worry cycle, suffering from chronic worrying and imagining worst-case scenarios. If you want to break your worry habit, it is important to learn the roots of anxious thoughts. After you understand these roots of negative thinking, you will be able to change these thought patterns and start living a more mindful, calm life.
What are signs of excessive worry?
You can become so caught up in your own mind that sometimes you don’t even recognize the negative thought patterns that have become habitual. You might not even realize that you are a chronic worrier or that your worrying thoughts are affecting your everyday life. Constant worrying can even be considered a form of addiction. And like any addiction, the first step in breaking the cycle is to admit that you have a problem. Try and notice how many of the symptoms listed below are a normal part of life for you:
- muscle tension
- shallow breathing
- imagining worst-case scenarios
- nervous energy
- inability to concentrate on the task at hand
- expecting bad things to happen more than good things
To further examine your anxious thoughts, it is useful to begin to practice mindfulness and notice the thought patterns that you have created. Notice also how your body reacts to the negative thoughts and imaginary scenarios that you play out in your mind.
This application of mindfulness to worry is not only useful in admitting that you have a problem but also helps you better understand your negative feelings. In your daily life, you may feel an underlying sense of sadness, lack of motivation, or fear, but never really understand why. By watching your thoughts, the root of these negative emotions can become clear and sometimes these distressing emotions will disappear simply by acknowledging of their existence.
What is the difference between worry and anxiety?
Worry is a mental state of thinking about the future in a way that produces feelings of anxiety, concern, hopelessness, apprehension, and other negative thoughts. Worrying is an aspect of anxiety disorders. But just because you worry does not mean that you have anxiety.
The difference between anxiety and worry is that anxiety usually interferes with your daily life, produces concerning physical symptoms (like chest pains, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, etc), causes panic attacks, and leads to unhealthy coping strategies.
If you think you might have generalized anxiety disorder (or any other anxiety disorder), speak to your doctor or a mental health professional. With professional help, you can explore options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, or other options.
What is the root of worrying?
“I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance.”The Dalai Lama
In Buddhism, worrying is a form of suffering and all suffering is rooted in what Buddhism calls attachment and ignorance.
Sometimes we worry because we are so attached to our false perceptions of the world. We expect our relationships, possessions, and our place in life to be stable and to always please us. But in reality, both our minds and the situations around us are impermanent and constantly changing.
Sure, we may understand on a surface level that our beauty will fade, our relationships can fail, or our fancy phones will eventually need to be replaced, but we see these events as distant possibilities. In reality, they could all be gone tomorrow. Everything is impermanent.
We also become attached to the false idea that we need a constant parade of external things to please us. Of course, we all need and deserve health, wealth, and close relationships. However, the Buddhist perspective is that our mind is the deeper source of happiness, and becoming content with the simple joy of being present is a powerful antidote to the attachment that keeps us chained to a feeling of dissatisfaction.
Finally, we can get mired in what Buddhism calls ignorance when we see ourselves and the things and people around us as concrete and independent instead of interdependent. The sense of a solid, independent “me” becomes an obstacle to the more fluid truth of a constantly changing interdependent self and world. In reality, we are not separate from the people and things around us.
At this point you may find yourself thinking, Well, this certainly isn’t helping, now I feel more anxious. At first, the ideas of impermanence, attachment, and ignorance may seem destabilizing but in reality, these concepts are the keys to freeing yourself from all suffering, because they align your mind with the way things truly are. Buddhism says that when you are able to accept that nothing lasts forever and that the present moment is all that there really is—when you see that external factors will only temporarily please you and when you understand that you are not, and have never been, separate from the world around you—then you will experience true freedom, contentment, and peace.
What if worrying motivates me?
Some people feel that worrying is a motivational tool that drives them to take action. For example, you may believe that worrying about the deadline of a project will drive you to finish it on time. Or that worrying about your weight will motivate you to eat healthier and work out more. Ironically, you might worry about not worrying!
The truth is that worrying does not serve you, and your life will be unequivocally better without it. Worry is not an effective tool for motivation, and you are perfectly capable of achieving high levels of success in your life without it. Not only will your path be more enjoyable but you may even find that you are more productive. A lot of times worrying can lead to procrastination because the thought of a situation or task gives you so much anxiety that you continue to push it off.
And why use worry as a driving force in your life when there are other, healthier tools that actually allow you to live in the present moment and enjoy the challenges you face? What if you used love to motivate you to have a hard conversation with a friend? What if you used compassion as a way to think through a difficult work situation?
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”Dalai Lama XIV quoting Shantideva
How do I stop worrying?
If you are depressed you are living in the past.—Reverend Run (Joseph Simmons)
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
After you have acknowledged your anxious thought patterns and understand the ways in which worrying negatively impacts your life, then you are able to move to the next step: stopping the worry cycle. Below are tips and exercises that can help ease worrisome thoughts. Remember that everyone is different and what works for some won’t work for others. Choose the strategies that fit best with your lifestyle and values.
- Practice acceptance
- Learn to accept your current reality, whether you can change it or not. If you can change the object of your worry, great, accept the situation then take action. If your worry is about something that is impossible to change, then try and also accept this too. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you can’t take action or that you are settling. Acceptance simply means seeing reality for what it is and living in the present.
- Question your worry
- Don’t automatically trust your anxious thoughts. Ask yourself if your worry is based in truth. How likely is it that the thing you are worrying about will happen? And even if it is likely to happen, how does worrying help your situation? Can you do something about it? If not, see if you can let it go.
- Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or partner
- Sometimes when you talk about your worrisome thoughts they can feel more manageable when you hear them out loud.
- Social interaction is key for mental and physical health; maybe you don’t want to discuss your anxious thoughts with your friends, but just spending time together will increase your happiness, sense of safety, and belonging.
- Mindfulness meditation
- Many types of meditation help reduce anxious thoughts and reduce stress. There are also plenty of other benefits to meditation.
- Mindfulness meditation can be especially helpful since it is focused on increasing mindfulness, presence, relaxing the body, watching thoughts from a distance, and accepting the present moment.
- Simply taking deep breaths throughout the day—especially when feeling overwhelmed—allows more air to enter your body and therefore calms the nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety.
- Box breathing is a deep breathing technique that increases relaxation, mental clarity, focus, and decreases stress.
- There are many different types of breathing techniques, check out this list and see which works best for you!
- Practice self-love
- Practicing self-love enhances overall well-being, helps you stay present, eases negative thinking, and releases endorphins.
- Some self-love practices are rejoicing in all the good you did today, taking a walk outside, practicing yoga, getting a facial or special spa treatment, planning dinner with friends, or treating yourself to something else you enjoy.
- Seek professional help
- If you believe you may have an anxiety disorder, it is best to find a mental health professional. If anxiety is interfering with your daily life, physical health, and overall well-being—and other self-help practices haven’t helped—they may recommend medication or therapy.
- Support your physical health
- Exercise significantly reduces stress as well as increasing endorphins, improving sleep, keeping you in the present moment, and improving overall mood.
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet improves mood, sleep, and energy levels.
- A good night’s sleep lowers stress, heightens focus, increases energy, and improves mood.
- Avoid unhealthy coping strategies
- If you find yourself smoking a cigarette, eating a chocolate bar, scrolling on social media for hours, binge-watching TV, or using any other numbing strategy to ignore your worrisome thoughts, it is best to consciously break these habits. They may seem to help in the short term, but they will only lead to health issues (physical and mental) in the long run.
- Learning to sit with your uncomfortable feelings and then move on is a more effective and sustainable coping strategy that doesn’t rely on escape or denial. Of course, entertainment and pleasure can be relaxing and enjoyable, but when these become addictions they will only make you feel worse; especially since many coping mechanisms lead to a decrease in overall health (like smoking, overeating or undereating, and alcohol).
- Schedule your worry time
- A chronic worrier may not be able to stop worrying cold turkey and therefore find it useful to schedule “worry time”. Give yourself 5-20 minutes each day—at a predetermined time—to write, discuss, or just contemplate your worrisome thoughts. It is best to schedule this toward the end of the day so that when you begin to have anxious thoughts during the day you can tell yourself that you will consider them later at “worry time” and then return to the present moment.
- Since worry time is best at the end of the day, it is important to schedule a mindfulness meditation or use relaxation techniques afterward, so you don’t end the day with stressful thinking. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, a massage, reading, listening to calming music, or any other activity that centers you will allow you to move on after your worry time.
- Enjoy the present moment
- Worry means that you are focused on the future and therefore not living in the present. If you are in the present moment you may find that it is impossible to worry.
- Some strategies for staying present are avoiding multitasking, slowing down automatic tasks (like washing the dishes, driving to work, or eating breakfast), meditation, and practicing gratitude (you can set alarms on your phone to stop and feel grateful for one thing).
Your Anxiety Questions, Answered – Ten Percent Happier
Acceptance of Troubled Times – Oprah’s Super Soul
3 Techniques to Switch from Overthinking to Thinking Effectively & 4 Ways to Turn That Into Action – On Purpose
Transforming Anxiety, Depression, and Other Difficult Emotions – A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment
Embracing Impermanence – A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment
Dalai Lama on Overcoming Anxiety
How to stop your thoughts from controlling your life
Letting Life Be – Tara Brach
Embracing Impermanence – A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment
Healing Anxiety with Buddhist Mind Training – A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment
Let Go of Worry and Anxiety – Ellen Hendriksen
Letting Go of Suffering – A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment
Live a Worry-Free Life – Khentrul Rinpoche
Exploring the Exhale (great for anxiety!)
9 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Anxiety
8 Breathing Exercises to Try When You Feel Anxious
Nervous System Reset: Guided Breathwork
Radical Acceptance – Tara Brach
The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
How to Relax – Thich Nhat Hanh
The Untethered Soul – Michael Singer