Proven Techniques for Overcoming Worry: How to Stop the Noise
Chronic worry is an all too common problem for those of us with anxiety.
Worry can often get out of control, becoming excessive (and obsessive), consuming our thoughts and our lives.
Overcoming worry is often one of the first goals we may have when we begin working to manage our anxiety.
Excessive worry can cause problems in our daily lives by keeping us from doing the things we want or need to do.
Worry can cause problems in all areas of life.
Worry can often trigger our anxiety or take a situation that is already anxiety-producing and turn it into something we panic over.
We might worry ourselves out of taking action.
We might avoid any and all risk. Focusing solely on comfort and safety.
And worrisome thoughts and fears can rob us of our present moment experience.
While worry can be a motivator for some – being a motivator to take action – worry in and of itself doesn’t actually solve anything.
It’s the action related to the worry, fear or concern that solves the problem.
We may unconsciously hold on to worry, believing it gives us a sense of control. “If I worry about this upcoming situation, then I’ll be prepared for the worst when it happens.”
But worrying about something doesn’t give us control like we may think it does, although it may provide the illusion of control. In reality, excessive worry can interfere with our ability to correctly access, and respond to situations in our lives.
Fortunately, there are proven techniques to reduce worry, calm the mind and plan for and take appropriate actions for the situations in our lives.
These techniques can allow us to see our present situations with more clarity and effectively plan for future events.
Knowing specific techniques for reducing worry can profoundly improve our lives for the better.
While we may not be able to eliminate worry completely, we can learn to manage it in a way that excessive chronic worry no longer interferes with our lives or keeps us from doing the things we want to do.
By using the following techniques for reducing worry; we can begin to reduce our daily worry, create more realistic expectations for future events, calm ourselves in the present moment and eliminate obsessing over a particular worry through problem-solving and taking action.
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Forms of Worry
Worry can come in different forms and occur at different times in our lives.
Rather than provide a “one-size-fits-all” technique for worry – we've provided specific techniques for different types of worry.
- Chronic daily worry: constant worrying on a daily basis throughout the day, this can be repetitive worries around the same issues or new worries, this is often associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or can be the obsessive part of OCD; the goal is to reduce daily worry, recognize pointless worrying and become proactive by taking action
- Anticipatory worry: worry surrounding an upcoming event or situation, usually seeing the worst-case scenario, this is often associated with phobias and fears; the goal is to challenge our imagined worst-case scenarios and begin to see the situation in a more realistic way, an additional goal could also be uncovering the beliefs or fears associated with the situation
- Present Worry: this is moderate to severe worry and anxiety in the moment that interferes with current experience, this is often associated with panic or being overly stimulated; the goal is to calm the mind and body and defuse ourselves from the center of the overactive worrying thoughts
Stopping the Noise
One of the best concepts I've come across in regards to worry is the concept of “Signal vs Noise.”
This is a concept taught by Dr. Reid Wilson, author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head.
It goes like this:
When we worry there are basically two types of worry-thoughts: a Signal or Noise.
A Signal is a legitimate concern about something we have control over or can take action on.
A signal can often be a motivator in the best sense of the word.
When we take action on a signal the worry behind it almost always disappears, resolves itself or, if the situation can't necessarily be resolved completely, the pressure behind it is released by our actions.
For example: You have recently begun arriving late to work several times per week due to oversleeping and you're now worried about losing your job
This is a valid and legitimate worry.
Constantly arriving late to work is grounds for termination at almost any workplace.
Taken as a signal we can use this worry to help motivate us to take action by forming a strategy to avoid this outcome.
Possible actions could be going to bed earlier, setting 2 alarms or talking with your boss.
Noise is simply everything else.
It is the constant interference of useless worries that have no basis in reality, are radically illogical, are pointless and unnecessary or simply beyond our control.
For example: You are lying in bed trying to go to sleep and keep worrying about an upcoming meeting tomorrow with your boss and how you might stumble over your words
This is noise. It's the middle of the night. You're going to sleep.
There's no action to take in this situation.
It's simply noise keeping you awake.
Your best response is to not take it seriously and focus on falling asleep.
If you begin to engage the noise you risk going down the rabbit hole of imagined scenarios and more worry.
The end result is less sleep.
Nothing is resolved by engaging pointless worries.
The goal is to be able to step back and become more aware whether or not our worry is a legitimate signal – or simply noise.
If it is a signal than we need to take the necessary actions the signal is motivating us to take, wherever necessary.
Scheduled Worry Time (below) is good strategy for this.
If it is noise we do nothing with it. We don't take it seriously. We develop the ability to see it for what it is… NOISE.
One additional point is that a valid signal not acted upon will simply become noise as long as we choose to ignore it.
This means that the worry may continue to come up until we do something to resolve it.
This ability to separate the signals from the noise is a profound strategy for dealing with worry.
It allows us to address legitimate worries by taking action, which gives us a true sense of control (versus the illusion of control) and personal power.
It also reduces our time and energy spent taking the noise in our heads seriously.
By not taking it seriously or trying to “fix” it we reduce our anxiety around it and the hold that it has on our lives.
Reduce Chronic Daily Worry
Chronic daily worry in its mildest forms can cause problems performing our daily tasks and create minor anxiety.
In severe cases it can distort our reality to the point that we see in every person something to be feared and every situation an opportunity for disaster.
If you suffer from anxiety – especially if you’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – chronic worry is probably an issue for you, as it was for me.
The technique described below can be extremely helpful for those with mild to moderate GAD or chronic daily worry.
It can help manage worry so that it no longer interferes with or consumes your daily life.
If you are on the more extreme end of chronic worry, have been diagnosed with GAD, or diagnosed with OCD; this technique can still work for you but it may be difficult at first without additional support.
I’ve been there.
In addition to the techniques provided in this article, speaking with a competent therapist can provide much needed guidance and support.
Scheduled Worry Time
Scheduled worry time is an effective strategy for managing out of control, daily worry.
Instead of clouding your day with excessive worries, you schedule all of your worrying for 1 specific time each day.
In addition to using this specific time for worrying, you will also be problem-solving and brainstorming ways you can move past the particular worry so you can move on and let it go from your mind.
This is an effective technique for overcoming chronic worry.
1. Choose a Daily Scheduled Worry Time
Choose a time each day you will dedicate to worrying. Typically evenings work best, but not too close to bedtime. You don't want to run through every worry right before you lay down to bed.
It's best to try and stick to the same time every day to make it a habit. For example, your worry time could be 8:00 pm every day.
2. Decide the Amount of Time Needed
Decide how much time you will dedicate to worrying and problem-solving. Typically 15-20 mins a day is plenty.
3. Tell Yourself "I'll Worry About that Later"
During the day when a worry pops up into your mind, simply tell yourself “I’ll worry about that later” and move on.
At first, you may find it difficult to brush aside your worries so easily but as you begin practicing and using the dedicated worry time, your mind will naturally begin to wait for the specified time to worry about the issue.
4. Use Notes if Needed
If a particular worry keeps coming back and you feel it's something you need to address, write it down on a stickie note or use a note-taking app like Evernote so you can pull it up later during your scheduled worry time.
Some people have found a “worry bag” helpful for storing handwritten notes. The act of putting your worries in a bag can help to associate it with putting the worry “out of mind.”
5. Use a Different Technique if the Worry Can't Wait
If you have a specific worry that can't wait until the scheduled worry time you can use one of the other techniques below.
For example, if you're at work and you’re worried about a presentation you have to give in an hour you can use the de-catastrophizing technique below.
If you’re feeling overly stimulated, stressed or anxious you can use one of the calming techniques.
6. Go Over Your Worries at the Specified Worry Time
At your specified worry time, go over your worries one at a time coming up with an action plan for each. We recommend doing this using a chart like the one below.
I have this tightness in my chest. I'm worried something may be wrong with my heart.
I only really feel it when I’m particularly anxious so it‘s probably anxiety related. But I’ve also been drinking a lot of coffee lately so it could also be due to that.
Actions I Can Take to Move On
I will try cutting back on my caffeine and see if that helps. If the problem persists or gets worse I will talk to my doctor.
7. Reduce Your Daily Worry
That's really all there is to it. Although pretty simply, you may find that this technique can drastically reduce the amount of worrying you do on a daily basis.
In addition, it can help you learn to problem solve and take action on valid concerns that need action so that you can move on – rather than dwelling on your worries every day.
8. Forgetting Your Worries
You may find that you can't remember many of the worries you were going to worry about later.
This isn’t a bad thing, obviously.
Very often we have worries that weren't valid or realistic to begin with (the noise).
Quite often, many worries simply resolve themselves as the day goes on. This is a good thing as it can help weed out the useless worries from the ones we need to take action on.
There's no need to go over every single worry that crosses our minds. However, we still say “I’ll worry about that later” to each one that does occur throughout the day.
If it resolves itself before our scheduled worry time or we forget about it – great – it still served its purpose.
Reduce Anticipatory Anxiety
Anticipatory anxiety is excessive worry, anxiety and/or fear regarding an upcoming event or situation.
Generally, we imagine the worst scenarios regarding a particular situation.
For example, public speaking is a common fear for many people.
Leading up to the event we may have thoughts such as:
“What if I stutter or stumble over my words?” or “What if I make a fool of myself?” or “What if they hate my presentation?”
Our thoughts can run rampant with all sorts of negative scenarios. But it’s not only the negative thoughts that are the problem.
Our imaginations can also get the better of us.
We might picture vivid images in our minds of the terrible outcomes we believe are waiting for us.
With the example above of a public speaking event; we may imagine ourselves stuttering or forgetting what we would say while our audience laughs or makes rude remarks.
We may even experience the feelings and sensations we would feel in that event; sweating, shaking, nervous, etc.
Anticipatory anxiety and worry are not limited to major events like public speaking. Any situation that has made us nervous or uncomfortable in the past, anything to do with the public or things that are new or outside our comfort zones can all trigger anticipatory anxiety.
At the height of my own anxiety and panic attacks, I used to get anxious before going to the grocery store.
I had a panic attack at a grocery store once and every trip after I would imagine it happening again.
“What if it happens again?” “What if I lose control?” “What if I run out of the store like a crazy person?”
It’s important to distinguish our thoughts and mental images from actual reality.
We may think something will happen but does it happen as we imagine it?
Is it ever as bad as we imagine it to be?
When I would work myself up prior to going to the grocery store I didn’t always have a panic attack like I believed I would.
Often I would begin shopping and everything would go fine, sometimes forgetting about it completely.
The times I did have a panic attack I never ran out of the store or lost control. I simply felt uncomfortable for a few minutes and it passed.
The actual reality of the situation was far less uncomfortable, dramatic or embarrassing than I always imagined it was going to be.
When we are overly anxious or worried about an upcoming event or situation, we tend to imagine the worst.
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) we often refer to this as catastrophizing.
We think we will experience the worst possible outcome in that situation (worst-case scenario) and – most frightening – we won’t be able to handle it.
The solution to the imagined worst-case scenarios and catastrophizing is de-catastrophizing. Looking at the issue from a more grounded, rational and realistic point of view. We can challenge our negative thinking and replace the thoughts or images with something better.
- Challenging the belief or thought by asking questions
- Assessing the likelihood or probability of it happening
- Replacing the imagined scenario with an alternative or more realistic one
- Gathering evidence for our abilities to cope with the outcome.
To walk you through the process I will be using the fear of flying as an example.
Step 1: Describe the Feared Scenario In as Much Detail as Possible
I have a flight coming up in 2 weeks and I'm scared the plane is going to crash. I keep imagining the engine failing and it dropping from the sky – crashing into some remote mountains.
Step 2: Assess the Likelihood or Probability of the Scenario Occurring. Is It Even Likely to Occur in the First Place?
When you look at the actual probability of dying in a commercial plane crash the odds are around 1 in 5,000,000. The likelihood that the plane is going to crash is extremely, extremely low.
Step 3: Gather Evidence to Further Evaluate the Likelihood of the Imagined Scenario Occuring
In the United States today – fatal commercial plane crashes are extremely rare. With over 100,000,000 US flights in the past decade and only one fatal commercial airline crash in that time. The probability of crashing is astronomically low.
Step 4: Challenge the Belief or Imagined Scenario by Asking Questions:
“What is the worst that can realistically happen?”
“What is so bad about that?”
“What is the most unpleasant part of this worst-case scenario?”
(For this example, our imagined worst-case scenario – crashing – has proven to be extremely unlikely to happen. In that case, what is a more realistic worst-case scenario?)
What is the worst that can happen?
“We hit turbulence”
What is so bad about that?
“Turbulence makes me extremely uncomfortable and anxious.”
What is the most unpleasant part of this worst-case scenario?
“I feel like I don’t have control over the situation. I don’t feel safe.”
Step 5 - Look for Your Strengths and Gather Evidence for Your Ability to Cope
When we are excessively worried about an upcoming situation we often fear that we won't be able to handle it. That is why it's important to reassure ourselves that we can.
Look at similar past experiences you've had
If you've flown before you could say: “I've flown several times in the past and I was ok – nothing bad happened.”
Look at other potential strengths or challenges you've faced
If you've never flown before you could say: “I've given birth to 3 children, a 4-hour plane flight is nothing in comparison” or “I made it 4 years through college despite a poor childhood and working full time – I think I can handle a few hours on an airplane.”
Step 6: Replace Your Imagined Worst-Case Scenario With an Alternative or More Realistic Scenario
I have an uneventful plane flight and arrive at my destination safe and sound. I felt some anxiety during the flight but nothing terrible happened like I originally imagined it would.
The "What if" Technique
The “What if” technique is a simple but powerful technique that can help us deal not only with anxiety about a future event but can help us uncover deeply held beliefs, fears, and fantasies we believe will happen.
This can be a profound tool for uncovering why a particular thing or scenario makes us anxious or worried in the first place.
- Why do we worry so much about failure or embarrassment?
- Why do we hold other’s opinions in such high regard?
- Why do we expect ourselves to be perfect?
- Why does this particular scenario or situation always frighten us?
While the technique is pretty straightforward and simple, you will be surprised at how quickly it can help you look at things more realistically and uncover the real cause of worry and anxiety.
You may often find that what you are really worried about has nothing at all to do with the particular event or scenario – but reflects a deeper fear or insecurity.
How to use it:
There are 3 different ways to do the “What if” technique, but the basic process is the same for all.
Simply state a worry about an upcoming event/scenario, trying to be as descriptive/specific as possible.
Then ask “what if ______” and keep working down until you’ve found the root fear or else see how unrealistic (or even silly) the worry is in the first place.
- You can do this technique on your own – being the “asker” and the “answerer” in your mind
- You can do this technique on your own with an empty chair and swapping roles by either mentally or physically changing seats
- You can also do this with another person (a trusted friend for example) – have them ask the “what if _____” to each statement while you answer
I will use a public speaking event as an example below to walk you through the process.
Role 1. “I have an upcoming speaking engagement next Thursday and I’m worried I’ll get on stage and forget what to say”
Role 2. And what if you forget what to say?
Role 1. “I will make a fool out of myself”
Role 2. And what if you make a fool out of yourself? Then what?
Role 1. “The audience will laugh at me”
Role 2. And what if the audience laughs at you?
Role 1. “The speech will be a disaster and I will look like a failure”
Role 2. What if that happens? What then?
Role 1. “People will think I’m not good at my job and my career will suffer”
Role 2. And what if that happens?
Role 1. “I may lose future events or even my job”
Role 2. What if that happens?
Role 1. “I won’t be able to provide for my family”
Role 2. And what if you can’t provide for your family?
Role 1. “They will be disappointed in me and see me as a failure”
Role 2. And if that happens? Then what?
Role 1. “They’ll lose respect for me”
Role 2. What if they lose respect for you? What then?
Role 1. “They won’t love me anymore”
Role 2. What if that happens?
Role 1. “They will leave”
Role 2. And if that happens?
Role 1. “I'll be alone in the world”
So you can see how deep this technique can go.
Starting from an ordinary worry – like messing up on a public speaking engagement – to a deep-rooted fear of being seen as a failure and ultimately being alone.
The belief could possibly even go deeper if we were to continue.
This technique can be effective at showing us how exaggerated or even downright silly our line of thinking can be sometimes.
Although the fear of being alone isn’t silly at all, believing that everyone will laugh at us and we’ll lose our job, causing our family to fall apart, all because we “might” forget what to say during a speech – is simply a fear-based fantasy.
It's exaggerated thinking.
People stumble or forget what to say many times during speeches and in most cases – it’s simply a brief pause or “hiccup” in the speech – not a disaster.
When we uncover exaggerated or catastrophizing thoughts related to the situation we can reappraise the situation and our beliefs surrounding it.
Reappraisal of the scenario:
“Forgetting what to say doesn't mean my presentation was a failure – I may stumble or even forget but I can remain calm and continue – it's not a big deal!”
We can use this technique for uncovering beliefs beyond just anticipatory anxiety.
By taking our most basic worries down to their core fears and fantasies we can discover the true reason why we worry so much about particular things/situations.
The “what if” technique is a truly powerful way to reduce anticipatory worry, anxiety and fear and can be a powerful technique for overcoming anxiety.
Reduce Worry in the Moment & Calm the Mind
Often with anxiety, we may experience moments of overwhelming worry.
In these moments pushing the worries off until later or trying to make plans for the future simply aren’t options.
We need to calm our minds now.
In our opinion, nothing works better for calming an overactive mind than mindful breathing. Deep belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing in particular.
Simply changing (or correcting) our breathing can drastically reduce feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and worry in the moment.
Taking deep, slow, steady breaths can relax the mind, nervous system and can even lower blood pressure.
Practicing mindfulness by focusing on our breathing can help bring us back into the present moment and allow us to disengage from our overactive minds.
This brings us out of the whirlwind of worrisome thoughts and creates a center in ourselves we can more effectively work from.
The technique below combines a proven breathing technique, diaphragmatic breathing, with mindful attention.
Mindful Deep Breathing
This technique combines the practice of mindful breathing (or “watching the breath”) with deep diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a well-known breathing technique that can relax the body and mind.
It can also stimulate the Vagus Nerve – a cranial nerve that runs from the brain to the gut – which engages the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system acts like the “brakes” for the sympathetic nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system is known for activating the “fight or flight response” otherwise known as the “stress response.”
By combining mindfulness with deep breathing we are not only calming our minds and bodies but bringing greater awareness to our present experience.
1. Bring Your Attention to Your Breath
Begin by simply noticing your breath in the moment. Gently bring your focus and awareness from your thoughts to your breathing.
What do you notice about your breathing as you watch each inhale and exhale?
- Is your breathing shallow or deep?
- Slow or rapid?
- Are you breathing from your abdomen or from your chest?
- Simply observe
2. Let your thoughts do their thing
As your focus is moved from your thoughts to your breathing – simply allow those worrisome thoughts to be as they are. No need to try and stop or change them. Allow them to take the “backstage” as your awareness of your breathing takes the “center stage.”
3. Begin taking deeper, slower breaths
Begin to slow down your breathing – taking slower deeper breaths. Only pause for 2-3 seconds between the inhale and the exhale.
4. Count the breaths
I’ve found the following to work exceptionally well for calming the mind and body. This form of breathing activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is activated on the exhalation so any breathing where the exhale is longer than the inhale should work fine.
- Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold for 2-3 seconds
- Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds (your lips should be pursed like sipping from a straw)
5. breath from the diaphragm
The diaphragm is a small muscle located at the base of the chest, near the top of the abdomen. Breathing from the diaphragm or diaphragmatic breathing is also called “belly breathing.”
This is the optimal location to breathe from.
Often when we are stressed – or simply through habituation – we tend to take shallow breaths from the chest, instead of from the abdomen or diaphragm.
Like anything, diaphragmatic breathing can take some practice – especially if you’re used to breathing from your chest.
- To start it may be helpful to place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen and practice breathing from the abdomen
- The abdomen should expand on the inhale and contract (or go inwards) on the exhale
- The chest shouldn’t move
- The belly should be soft and the body should relax more with each exhalation
6. continue to focus on counting your breaths
As you breathe from the diaphragm continue mentally counting your breaths
- Inhale- 1,2,3,4
- Hold- 1,2,3
- Exhale- 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
Continue in this way for several rounds of breathing
7. Observe your breathing
After several rounds of breathing:
- simply begin observing the process
Your breath should naturally continue in this slow steady manner without much need for control on your part.
You can choose to keep your awareness on your breath or focus on the belly rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.
8. It doesn't need to be perfect
The point of this technique is to calm the mind and body. There is no need to stress over “Am I doing it right?” or trying to force the breath.
Simply bring your attention to the breath, breathe slowly and deeply, count the breath and observe.
Here are a few tips:
- breathing from the diaphragm can take practice at first – when first practicing this technique you can simply focus on the belly expanding on the inhale and contracting on the exhale
- if your awareness slips back onto your worrying thoughts – gently place it back on the breath
- don't force the breath – find a duration for the inhalation and exhalation that is slow and deep but natural for you – you shouldn't be gasping or forcing the breath
- always inhale through the nose – you can choose to exhale through the mouth or the nose- whichever you prefer
- practicing this technique for several minutes a day every day can strengthen the diaphragm and improve your ability to relax – try using it every day even when you don't necessarily need it
Worry doesn’t have to consume our daily lives, keep us from doing the things we want to do or provide unnecessary stress or fear.
We can learn to reduce worry using the techniques in this article.
Overcoming worry is an achievable goal, regardless of how difficult it may seem right now.
Using the techniques listed above:
- we can learn to separate the signals from the noise
- we can learn to use worry to promote problem-solving and taking action
- we can directly challenge our fears and worrisome thoughts about the future
- we can begin to view our situation in a more realistic way
- we can learn to calm ourselves in the moment and let go of excessive worry
Just reading this article isn’t enough to eliminate worry – we need to take action and practice the techniques.
By using the techniques provided in this article we can learn to loosen worry’s grip on our lives.
Actively developing the skills to handle our worries can profoundly improve our lives.
We are instilling ourselves with the ability to handle whatever our lives (and our minds) may throw at is.
We may not always be able to stop worry completely – but we can keep it from getting out of control and interfering with our lives.
Try these techniques out and see how they work for you!
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