I have a vivid memory of being 4 years old in a diner with my mom and her boyfriend at the time, who happened to be a professional clown. We were having a nice meal, the clown was doing silly tricks, and I should have been happy. But I couldn’t stop worrying about everything. "Kaia, just relax!" my mom said with exasperation. "I’m trying as hard as I can!" I replied.
Welcome to the story of my life. I have tried "as hard as I can" to relax for as long as I can remember.
My propensity toward worry—and the crushing anxiety I’ve felt at times because of it—has led me on a quest for relief from the caustic content of my thoughts and ultimately for joy. I dedicated 30 days to joy a couple of years ago as an experiment, and that experiment turned into both a book and a lifestyle.
Wired for worry.
In my quest I often wondered: Are our brains wired to worry? It seems for some of us, the answer is yes.
The areas of the brain involved in processing emotions, recalling memories, and thinking about the future are connected together in what is known as the default mode network, or DMN. Our brains literally default to thinking about ourselves when they don’t have anything else to do. For some, this DMN mind-wandering leads to daydreaming and creative thoughts while for others it’s a beeline straight to worry. It seems we are predisposed to lean toward either worrisome or hopeful thoughts.
Some of us are simply more biologically sensitive to perceived problems. The amygdala—the brain’s fear and danger sensor—is more active in some than others. In folks with a particularly sensitive amygdala (like me), a train of thought can easily become a runaway locomotive of rumination and worry.
I’m pretty sure my amygdala came with a hair trigger. My DMN was set toward worry for nearly four decades. But I recently cracked the code to my frantic mind and figured out how to stop worrying all the time.
Mindfulness over matter.
The problem for worriers like me is that we confuse our thoughts about reality with actual reality. That’s one of the reasons why mindfulness, the practice of bringing your awareness to the present moment, can really help. When you give more attention to the sensory experience of your body than the narrative content of your thoughts, you can more easily delineate what is actually true. Here are some practices that can get you there:
1. Mindfulness 101.
When my mind is harping on and on about something that will only lead to strife—worry about the world, my family, or my role in either, without any productive outcome—shifting my focus to my breath, a mantra, or my five senses can really help. I teach mindfulness to elementary school students and the practice is so simple, even 5-year-olds can master it.
To get started with a basic practice, close your eyes, take deep breaths, feel your pulse, and focus in turn on each of your five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Anchor yourself in your body as a way to get out of your head. Deep breaths send oxygen to the brain, which soothes the amygdala and calms the stress response.
2. Find something to appreciate.
When you’re mired in worry, gratitude might be the furthest thing from your mind. But focusing on something you’re grateful for calms the amygdala and reduces stress in the body. Gratitude also releases dopamine in the brain, a motivating hormone that compels you to do more of whatever gave you the hit.
Spend a few minutes writing down a list of things you’re grateful for—or just recite the list in your mind. Switch your perspective from focusing on everything that could go wrong to appreciating the things that are going right, and let the power of gratitude work its magic on your state of mind.
Our bodies weren’t designed to sit still all the time. Pent-up physical energy can manifest as stagnated mental processes when we think too much and move too little. If like me, you sit at a desk all day or have a fairly sedentary job, it’s super important that you find the time to exercise.
Even mild exercise induces serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good chemicals in the brain, which help lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and once again, calm the amygdala. Start your day with an at-home yoga routine, take a midday break for a quick walk outside, or hit the gym for a lunch-hour class—whatever works for you to get your body moving. Your mind will thank you for it.
4. Give your mind a substitute.
Like a puppy, without discipline, my mind runs wild—finding topics to chew on until they’re destroyed. But my mind is also trainable. If I give it a project—a toy for my mind to chew on—it can chill out and focus.
What can you give your mind to chew on? Maybe you could start writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, even if you just compose it in your head. Or perhaps your new mental hobby can involve creating solutions to help make the world a better place. Make a concerted effort to replace your worrisome thoughts with productive thoughts, and watch how your new mental habit takes hold.
Training your mind to drift away from worry and instead to lean toward hope, gratitude, creativity, and optimism does take effort. But the good news is, thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains remain moldable throughout our lives. With practice and repetition, we can change our thoughts, which then will shift our perceptions, words, and actions, and eventually change our experience of life.