Many of us worry. A lot. We worry about anything and everything — from work to the weather to money to appearance to social situations, according to Andrea Umbach, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders at Southeast Psych in Charlotte, N.C.
We also “ruminate about things that happened in the past, usually experiencing guilt or regret,” and “about what might happen in the future — the ‘what ifs.’”
We assume that our worrying helps us to plan and prepare. However, “real preparation requires action,” Umbach said.
Worry only paralyzes us. It “is not the way you’re going to solve the problems in your life and thrive. It’s in the way,” said Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who helps children, teens and adults overcome anxiety.
Umbach shared this example: Let’s say you’re worried that your car might not make it to the beach. So you ruminate about all the different ways it might break down along with the horrible things that will happen when it does. This doesn’t get you anywhere — except more and more worried.
“Worry is a very passive process, meaning it keeps us busy but we aren’t actually doing anything productive,” Umbach said.
Worry amplifies your anxiety and triggers a negative mood, said Chansky, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. And it “siphons off our energy and attention from things we might actually need to plan for or prepare for in our lives.”
You may know that worrying keeps you stuck and stressed. But you might have a hard time getting out of the worry cycle once you’re in it. Below, Umbach and Chansky shared their suggestions on how to transform worrying into productive action.
1. Conduct a side-by-side comparison.
This is similar to being a good consumer and comparing products, Chansky said: You compare worry to the real facts, and pick the scenario that’s “deserving of your time and attention.”
She suggested asking yourself these two questions: “What is worry telling me about this situation? What do I really truly believe is going to happen and why?”
For instance, let’s say you have a job interview and you worry that you’re going to mess up. Big time. You worry you’ll go blank and have nothing to say.
According to Chansky, when you consider the facts, you might realize: “I am not likely to totally mess up. Might I forget something here and there? Yes, but I have a lot to say. It’s not likely that I’ll draw a blank. But if I do, I can finesse it, and if I I’m not dreading it or anticipating it, it’s less likely to happen anyway.”
Worry triggers fear, while the “facts bring perspective and calm you down.”
2. Refocus on the rational.
Umbach suggested practicing “active problem solving rather than passive worrying,” which includes asking logical questions. She shared these examples:
- “How do I know for sure that my prediction will come true?
- What does my past experience tell me about the likelihood of my worry coming true?
- How do other (logical) people usually react in this situation?
- How can I cope with … if it were to occur?
- Does this really matter in the big scheme of things?
- Will I care about this a month from now?
- Is this worry actually productive or just filling my time?
- What might I say to a close friend or relative who was having the same worries as me?”
She also suggested these statements:
- “It will probably go OK (rather than…it probably won’t be a total disaster)
- The worst that can happen is … and I can live with that.
- The worst that can happen is … but that is unlikely.”
3. Identify reasonable action steps.
Once you’ve asked the above questions, identify the actions that are reasonable in your situation, said Umbach. For instance, in the earlier car example, “if it is reasonable to get your car inspected, then actually go do it instead of passively worrying about it. Or if it seems excessive, trust your logic and know you made a rational decision.”
4. Wait it out.
Sometimes, you just need to wait and see what happens because it’s impossible to plan for every scenario, Umbach said. By waiting, you also “see if there is actually a problem to solve in the first place.” If there is, trust yourself to solve it and handle things as they come, she said.
5. Build your resilience.
“Trusting in your abilities and being resilient is way more productive than worrying and [trying to maintain] control,” Umbach said. Unfortunate circumstances are part of life. It’s important to accept this, she said.
The key is to have an “approaching attitude,” rather than an “avoidance attitude,” which makes you more resilient. This kind of attitude means you’re more willing to try new or challenging things, which helps you see what you’re capable of, she said. It’s about the process, not the outcome, she explained.
“I always tell my clients I would rather they have some hard situations and learn how to get through them, than not ever have any problems at all,” Umbach said.