Obsessed with “what ifs”? This simple yet powerful mechanism may help when you’re stuck in a worrying loop
The tendency to worry is a universal trait – an entrenched part of our fight-or-flight instinct that evolved to alert us to dangerous situations.
Studies show that 85% of what we worry about never happens. And, while excessive worrying can be a sign of high intelligence, too much also floods the brain with the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect memory and other mechanisms.
There is also a genetic element to worrying, which introduces a catch-22 theme. If you’re not geared to worry, you won’t anyway; and if it’s hardwired within you, there may be little you can do about it.
Logically, it’s easy to see that worrying is a fruitless task. Yet, that doesn’t stop many of us getting caught in a negative loop. We turn over the same concerns again and again, without any solution or the ability to break away.
The nervous system, in effect, has been hijacked.
This kind of rumination is ultimately bad for you, because it’s linked to a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
But there’s one simple tactic that you can use to stem the tide of negativity before it fully spirals.
“One of the most helpful things you can do instead of worrying is problem-solving,” says psychologist Melanie Greenberg, writing in Psychology Today. “Problem-solving means defining the problem in a way that you can do something about it.”
As a mental tool, problem-solving might sound too simple to be true. The compulsion to worry can be so overwhelming, it’s hard to imagine that it can be curtailed by this rational and straight-forward mechanism.
But the technique works on a number of powerful levels.
Firstly, it encourages you to “name it to tame it”. By defining what exactly your worry is, you bring it out into the open. This gives you crucial distance from the whirlpool of your mind.
Secondly, by framing your worry as a problem to fix, you move to positive action. Instead of obsessing over what would happen if you lost your job/partner/house, for example, you focus on how you could prepare for such an outcome.
By doing so, you begin to rationalise the worry. “One you have a defined problem you can generate some possible solutions, and think through the likely consequences of each,” says Greenberg.
When you peel back the layers of a particular issue, you bring it into the real world – which in turn will stop you from catastrophizing. You see the worry for what it really is.
Finally, you can put your solution into practice: whether that’s by talking to someone, taking specific action or mindfully accepting what you cannot change (a state that brings about increased happiness).
Much like Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea to re-frame anxiety as concern, problem-solving can bring your obsessive worrying to a calmer, cooler-headed place.
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