A few years ago, I spent every Sunday night worried about work. Every night during the week I would lie awake, worried about the next day.
Thoughts running through my mind… Will I be able to handle it? What do I need to prepare myself for… Maybe I should check my work emails to make sure I know what’s coming… I hope that client doesn’t yell at me… What am I going to do if he does?
Being a lover of science, I sought out an explanation of why this actually happens…
THE SCIENCE OF WORRYING
We worry for a reason. Once upon a time, back when we lived in caves and spent our days hunting, planning for potential dangers was a survival mechanism. Bred through years of natural selection. Those who could plan for and respond to danger the fastest, wins.
Nowadays, sabre tooth tigers aren’t waiting around every corner. Despite this, we are still programmed to expect danger and to plan for what may harm us. So we worry about what is to come and stay up all night trying to plan for situations that may or may not happen.
What once kept us alive, is now sucking away our happiness.
Worrying, literally, sucks.
When I found out that all my worrying had an explanation behind it, I was relieved, then frustrated… Is there anything I can do about it?
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
There are obviously times in which planning for potential dangers or difficulties is still useful. So, being attuned into when this is needed and choosing to stop worrying from stampeding into your brain and taking over, is going to be a useful skill.
These strategies below are inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a behavioural therapy which teaches clients to accept what is out of their control, and commit to actions which create a rich and fulfilling life. It’s a therapy which has been used with positive effects on work stress and burnout, depression, anxiety, amongst other things.
When we become entrenched in unhelpful cognitions and emotions, this is called fusion. We are literally fused with our internal processes, forgetting to pay attention to everything else that is presently going on. When we are in a state of fusion, our behaviour is influenced by what is happening internally, meaning that we are less flexible with what is happening presently, externally. We are psychologically and behaviourally, inflexible.
You will have experienced this at some point before. Perhaps you weren’t quite present while talking to a friend, instead thinking about work tomorrow. Perhaps you overreacted to a client because you were caught up in what they did yesterday, instead of responding to what they were doing differently, today.
Here’s a few handy steps that I use with my clients all the time…
- Notice when your mind is getting swept away from the present moment.
- Create distance between yourself and the thought by saying “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that ….” or, thank your mind and your ego for trying to keep you safe. Bring acceptance and compassion for responding the way you were conditioned to.
- Expand your awareness of what is happening around you, using all of your senses to experience your present moment. Notice three things that you can see. Two things that you can smell? What are five things that you can hear? What do your clothes feel like against your skin? (This is not to replace the internal experience, rather to remind yourself that you can choose to focus on other, more resourceful experiences).
- Breathe. Take 10 slow deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Through your nose, right down deep into your belly, out through your mouth. This engages the resting response, shutting down the stress response.
- Act. What actions can you take that will set you towards your goals and values? Task these and start right away.
Do you already use these strategies? What works for you?