7 Practical Ways To Manage Overwhelming Worry, From A Neuroscientist
There is a lot to be anxious and worried about these days. From the uncertainty of a pandemic to turbulent elections, worldwide protests, and political infighting, it's easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed out, and fearful. These are normal human reactions to adverse events. The good news? We don't have to be controlled by these feelings.
We can't always control the circumstances of life, but we do have the power to control how these emotions affect us. In other words, we're in charge of how we react when we're suddenly faced with terrible news or we read something on social media that induces panic.
In these moments, it's useful to have a worry-reducing toolbox with simple, everyday strategies to help control your fears and anxiety. Having these practical techniques on hand can really help you in the moment, especially when you can't think clearly or don't know what to do with yourself:
See your anxiety as a learning experience.
When you're experiencing intense or anxious feelings, it can be hard to feel in control and work through the emotions. So, ask yourself: What can I learn from this? or What is this situation telling me about myself? Those two simple questions make the biggest difference when it comes to your mental health and resilience.
This technique works really well if you use it along with another technique I call the multiple perspective advantage (MPA). To do this, objectively stand back and observe your own thinking as you ask, answer, and discuss through the two questions. This process creates a strong, integrated energy flow throughout the brain that allows you to see multiple outcomes in a situation.
While these techniques are not easy to do, they do become more effective over time and with practice.
Distract yourself, temporarily.
Yes, temporary distractions can be a good thing. They can give you the space you need to let your emotions calm down, which is especially necessary when you feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. It takes about 60 to 90 seconds for intense emotions to die down, so a distraction (going for a run, practicing yoga, or reading a novel), can be a good thing when anxiety sets in.
Just be careful not to lean on distractions too much. When you find yourself turning to this technique often, it may be a way to suppress feelings (read: bottle your emotions) and avoid working through them.
So, take a good look at the diversions in your life and ask yourself: How am I using these distractions? Am I trying to avoid an issue? How can I better use distractions in my life? Then commit to dealing with the issue once you are in a better mental space.
Don't go to bed anxious.
If you often feel anxious at night, try writing down your thoughts and feelings before going to sleep.
You don't have to analyze or fix them—just get them down on paper. The simple act of writing things down often brings balance back into the brain and helps produce feel-good chemicals, like serotonin. Writing also makes things seem a little less scary and overwhelming. One of the best things about writing is that it weakens the impact and hold the anxious thought has over you.
Some statements that can help you release this anxiety at night are:
- I did my best today, and that is good enough.
- My level of productivity or checklist does not determine my self-worth.
- Tomorrow is another day for me to use my skills and talents to help others.
- Today I learned ___ and I am grateful for ___.
- I am proud of myself for doing ___ today.
- My thoughts and feelings are temporary and will pass.
Have a game plan when you start worrying about the future.
Worrying about the future tricks us into believing we can control the future. Worry is an understandable attempt to reduce uncertainty but can often cause more problems. For a healthier approach to uncertainty, step out of destructive worry and into constructive worry by:
- Identifying what uncertainty is causing you the most fear.
- Creating a game plan for the best and worse outcomes.
- Setting a 5-minute timer to allow yourself to worry about something. This keeps you from suppressing it.
- Talking to someone you trust, such as a loved one or therapist. Remember, there is no shame in asking for help.
Surround yourself with the right people.
Who you hang out with can hinder or help your emotional well-being. Remind yourself that it's OK to surround yourself with people who are good for your mental health. Take note of how certain people make you feel and the people who make you feel like your happiest and truest self. These are the people who you need to be around more frequently—especially when you feel anxious or fearful.
Remember, it's not only OK to put up boundaries, it's essential. It's OK to decline certain events and to end a relationship that makes you anxious or upset all the time. It's definitely OK to move on, say no, and take breaks from people who bring you down. All in all, it's OK to make yourself a priority.
Respond; don't react.
Learn to respond—not just react—to your anxious thoughts and feelings. What's the difference between responding and reacting? Responding means pausing between the stimulus and the action. It enables you to use that pause to evaluate what a beneficial or harmful response will look like.
Reacting, on the other hand, is impulsive. Just reacting to what you are thinking or feeling in the moment gives more energy to the anxious structures and neurons in the brain.
A great way to make responding, not reacting, a habit is to stop and breathe for 60 to 90 seconds amid an anxious thought. This will give your emotions time to calm down so you can figure out what your emotions are trying to tell you.
If you make this a conscious and deliberate practice, it will become easier over time, improving relationships and mental health.
Shift your attention.
Although it is important that you acknowledge your anxiety, don't dwell on it. For every anxious thought you have, try to think about three positive things—I call this the 3:1 ratio.
These positive thoughts should not be something vague like just be happy. They should include specifics that bring you joy, such as something you're grateful for, something you appreciate, something that makes you laugh or makes you feel content.
What's great about this 3:1 ratio is that you don't have to suppress your worry or try to have an unrealistic, happy-go-lucky life. You don't have to feel guilt or shame when you think anxious thoughts. In fact, you need to allow room for negative thoughts in your life, as they can help prepare you for worst-case scenarios, deal with the past, and keep you grounded. However, these negative thoughts need to be balanced with the good so that they don't become the dominant structure in your brain.
These are just a few great tips you can use in the moment to help you control and deal with your anxiety. You can write them down, set them as a reminder on your phone, post them around the house, or create a worry box that you can turn to when you feel anxious or fearful.
When utilizing these tools, also remember your worry and anxiety do not define you. In my most recent clinical trial, a team of researchers and I found it's possible to feel empowered over your mind, which can increase the feeling of control over anxiety by up to 81%.
Try to view worry and anxiety as signals, warning you something is going on around you, or in your life, that needs attention. Try not to view them as something to fear or suppress. These techniques can help you get to a place where you can address the roots of your fear and anxiety so that it no longer has power over you or your thinking.
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Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. She received her masters and Ph.D. in communication pathology, as well as a BSc in logopaedics from the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa and in the USA, she developed a theory about how we think, build memory, and learn (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory). The learning process has been turned into a tool for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementias and mental ill-health issues like anxiety and depression.
Leaf is author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She teaches at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences, churches, and to various audiences around the world. Dr. Leaf is also involved in the global ECHO movement, which trains physicians worldwide on the mind-brain-body connection, mental health and how to avoid physician burnout.