"I wish I hadn't spent so much of my life worrying" was one of the greatest regrets cited by elderly people looking back on their lives in a recent study.
Worrying can drain your motivation and trigger high anxiety that leads to actual illness, not to mention the steam of destructive side effects that fear and stress have on your mind and body over a long-term period.
But it is is also a catch 22 situation. The impact of constant fretting can be so toxic that the more you worry about getting sick, the more likely you are to actually get sick.
Rationally we know that worrying about credit card bills or what someone said to us at work will achieve nothing and the best way to be happy and healthy is to banish it altogether.
But just telling someone to stop worrying won't cut it. This is a highly compulsive and robust psychological mechanism that tears us away from the present moment and puts our minds into a particular setting that can quickly spiral beyond all logic. As Mark Twain pointed out, many of the troubles that haunt us don't actually end up happening.
Here are some practical and off-radar tactics to help take the power out of worrying, without consciously fighting against it. From boring your fears to inhaling citrus scents and changing your bedtime, these methods will work to distract you and give you back control of how and when you dwell on problems.
Bore your fears by repeating them again and again
"Repeat a feared thought over and over and it will become boring and will go away," he says.
"For example, let's say you are worried you might lose your job. You've decided there is nothing that you can do right now that will solve the problem, but the worries keep coming back. One technique that is useful for many people is to repeat the negative worry hundreds of times: 'It's possible I can get fired.' Repeating this thought for 20 minutes, slowly, focusing on the words can eventually lead to getting incredibly bored with your worry."
Use citrus-scented essential oils
The scent of citrus fruit can work wonders in reducing feelings of anxiety. In one Brazilian study, participants spent five minutes inhaling one of three scents; sweet orange essential oil, tea tree oil or plain water. They then underwent a stressful test while having their vital signs measured. Those who sniffed orange oil beforehand were less anxious throughout the test, in an effect that lingered even after the exam was over.
In another experiment at a hospital in Ohio, scientists diffused grapefruit-scented essential oils in an oncology ward nurses’ station. Nurses there who often complained of stress and burnout reported significant improvements in their tension levels over the course of the study.
“The scent of a fresh fruit can do amazing things,” says Barbara Thomley, lead coordinator for the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. “With any citrus smell, lessened anxiety always seems to emerge as a benefit. From what we’ve seen with our patients, even a quick smell can make a major difference.”
Take time out from social media
Time and again, studies have found that Facebook and Twitter feed anxiety via the FOMO effect (Fear of Missing Out) that comes from ogling details of other people's wonderful - albeit edited - lives, the fear factor that comes from magnified individual neuroses (creating risks that seem bigger than they actually are) and the wired impact that comes from feeling "worried or uncomfortable" when you're not tuned in.
"In effect, social media is creating a driving, self-propelling force of anxiety that motivates us to want more, do more and be more," says Lucie Green, editor at trends consultancy LSN:Global.
Rid yourself of the needless worry caused by this collective anxiety by cutting down on the time you spend on Facebook and Twitter. Limit your interaction on social to specific time slots per day or download these apps to help you stay away. Assess how you feel at the end of the week and alter your routine accordingly.
Never worry by yourself
They say a problem shared is a problem halved, and in his book Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive, psychologist Edward M. Hallowell states the case for always worrying in the company of someone else, to avoid becoming paralyzed by the process. By voicing our concerns to someone else, he argues, we transform the aimless anxiety of real or imagined concerns into a problem-solving exercise.
"Worrying alone tends to become toxic because in isolation we lose perspective. We tend to globalize, catastrophize, when no one is there to act as a reality check. Our imaginations run wild," he says. "So anything you can do to reduce feelings of vulnerability and increase feelings of power and control will reduce toxic worry. Note that the external reality is irrelevant; it's the internal feelings that count."
He recommends finding someone you like and trust to vent your worries to, in order to establish the facts of the case (as toxic worry is often based on lack of information or the wrong information) and work on a plan to increase your control over the situation.
Learn to juggle
Just as keeping your hands busy can help you quit smoking, so it can also stop you worrying. Research from the UK Medical Research Council found that keeping your hands busy and mind distracted could help prevent flashbacks from traumatic experiences.
"Keeping your hands and mind busy interferes with storing and encoding visual images," says Bob Hirshon, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Of course, any kind of activity will do but juggling is a fun and demanding option, as far as keeping your mind busy is concerned. You could also take up knitting, or try the old trick of snapping an elastic band on your wrist to stop your worries overwhelming you.
Create a 15-minute window for worry time
This cognitive behavioural therapy technique teaches you to confine your worrying to a regular set period of 15 minutes every day. When a worry pops up in your head, make a mental note and cast it aside to that time. This will be difficult at first, but control will develop over time if you make yourself stick to the routine. During the time you've set yourself to worry, you can really open the floodgates and write down everything that's worrying you. Don't think about solutions, unless they happen to pop into your head - just use this form of expressive writing, which allows a perspective you wouldn't get from internal thoughts alone. At the end of each week, you can look back on your notes to identify any repeat worries or patterns. In this way, you are taking charge of your worries rather than them taking charge of you.
Make your bedtime earlier
Start a habit of going to bed early, and stick to it, to reign in negative thought processes. A recent study from New York's Binghamton University looked at participants' sleep habits and how often they dwelled on problems. Unsurprisingly, they found that those who slept less had more negative thoughts, but they also found the same link between people who went to bed later, regardless of how much they slept.
"It’s not just how much sleep you get, but when you go to sleep that matters," says study author Jacob Nota. "Making sure that sleep is obtained during the right time of day may be an inexpensive and easily disseminable intervention for individuals who are bothered by intrusive thoughts."
It's not clear how exactly a later bedtime and negative thought processes are linked, but the researchers speculated that sleep times that aren't aligned with natural light-dark cycles might impair your ability to control emotion and mood.
Stop worrying about exercise and diet
In her book Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health, respected US health specialist Dr. Susan M. Love argues that we should just draw a line under everyday health worries (such 'am I exercising enough?' or 'am I eating too few vegetables?'), since perfect health is a myth and most of us are living far more healthful lives than we realize.
"Is the goal to live forever?" says Dr. Love, who is a clinical professor of surgery at the University of California. "I would contend it’s not. It’s really to live as long as you can with the best quality of life you can. The problem was all of these women I kept meeting who were scared to death if they didn’t eat a cup of blueberries a day they would drop dead."
She contends that the biggest risk posed by health problems, including nutrition and exercise, are on the extremes, and that there is far more middle ground than we think.
"There may be times in your life when you’ve gotten too much of this or too little of that, but being in the middle is better, and most of us are probably there already," she says.
The bottom line? Cut yourself some slack. Don't waste your worries on an image of perfection that is both unnecessary and doesn't exist anyway.
Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Getty Images and Rex Features