Noticing the waves and spirals: ten top tips on worrying
This has felt like a difficult post to write. I’ve started, procrastinated, come back, gone away again. On reflection, this is partly because of the great breadth of experiences that different people will be having during this time. The phrase ‘same storm, different boat’ has come up in a few places for me and it resonated. Although we are all affected by the same overall situation, the individual experiences will vary hugely. Consciously and unconsciously we also bring our own experiences, ways of seeing the world, our patterns of thoughts and behaviours into the mix, which dictates to some extent the shape and size of our ‘boat’ and how it fares in the storm. This is a slightly long-winded way of saying that I understand that this time is different for all of us, and as individuals perhaps it feels different by the minute and depending on what’s going on.
Within all that though, there may be worry. We all do it. Some of us do it more than others. Sometimes we worry more than at other times. The uncertainty and ongoing changes of a global pandemic may well be a situation where you might, very understandably, notice that you are worrying more. The positives of worry can be that we learn from our past experiences, and perhaps we anticipate things that might happen in the future.
If, however, you have a sense that worry for you is feeling excessive and uncontrollable, impacting negatively, or is making it feel difficult to go about your day-to-day life, it can be helpful to get curious about it and to perhaps explore relating to worry differently. We’ll explore what worry is, why it might happen and explore some ideas to play with that may support you when you notice yourself worrying.
I think worry is a word that sounds like what it means. Casting my mind back to English lessons, this means it’s an onomatopoeic word. That sense of niggling away at something, like a dog with a bone or picking away at something. Worry is a type of negative thinking process that our minds engage in. The process of it can feel circular: going round and round; perhaps spiralling and getting bigger and bigger. We can feel stuck in it. We talk to ourselves repetitively about possible future events that we feel afraid about. Our mind discusses the event over and over and likes to think about what might happen if it occurs. In a way, it’s our minds being alert to possible threats and attempting to deal with them. Minds like certainty, which at the moment might feel particularly challenging.
You might notice that worrying thoughts are accompanied by feelings and sensations of anxiety, like a racing heart and breathlessness. Our brain does not fully distinguish between external reality and our internal thoughts and images. Think of going to see a scary film. Your breathing might get shallower, your palms sweat, you shake, your heart beats faster. Even though it is reacting to images on a screen rather than a real-life threat, your body is getting ready to fight, freeze or flee. It can be the same with worrying thoughts. You might see pictures of worst-case scenarios in your mind’s eye or that internal voice might be accompanied by a racing heart. Simply being aware of the relationship that can happen between our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations can help us to notice when it is happening and make choices about how we engage with what might be going on.
Ten tips about worrying
1. Labels matter. I have often heard people say ‘I’m a worrier. It’s what I’m like’. As a counsellor, my ears tend to prick up when I hear people label themselves as something. Yes it can help to name something, as it means that we are turning towards it and looking at it. But perhaps making an ‘I’ statement suggests that this is something that you simply are. Language is powerful. Defining yourself in a fixed way can mean that it feels less like it can be changed, if that is something that you would like to do. You could try ‘Sometimes I worry’ or ‘I think I spend more time worrying than I would perhaps like to’. It’s a subtle shift but it can be a powerful in supporting you to realise that change is possible.
2. Simply notice. When you find yourself in spiral of possibilities and ‘what ifs’, notice it. You can name it to yourself: ‘worrying’. You don’t need to get involved with the process that’s going on, or to push it away or block it out. You can simply try to bring the focus of your attention away from it: to something that is happening here and now. That could be physical sensations, sights, sounds or smells. The feel of your feet on the earth. Using your breath to focus on, which can also be beneficial if worrying thoughts are followed by physical feelings of anxiety. You don’t need to do anything special with your breath, simply draw your attention to it and the sensations of it entering and leaving your body. Like many new ways of being, noticing worrying and choosing to move away from it is a skill that we can practise and learn.
3. Say hello to your inner critic. Do you find yourself worrying about worrying and beating yourself up for it? We are often our own worst critics. Take a moment and listen to how you talk to yourself: ‘I shouldn’t be worrying’ ‘I’m weak’ ‘This is so stupid’. We can learn to treat ourselves kindly and with compassion: one of the first steps can be to simply notice what your ‘inner critic’ is like and how it speaks to you. Criticising ourselves for worrying can create more concerns and keep the thinking process going. Listening to your thoughts with an attitude of curiosity can help you to become more aware of that inner critic and begin to develop a kinder voice towards yourself.
4. Notice the ‘what if’ mode. Sometimes our minds can pull away into thinking about lots of worst case scenarios. This might be especially true at the moment with so many questions and uncertainties. With clients, I sometimes use the metaphor of a large wave on the ocean, rolling and getting more powerful. A starting thought such as ‘what if I lose my job’ can tumble into bigger and more difficult thoughts. The wave begins to feel larger and more uncontrollable and you feel as though you are caught in the middle of it Catching, noticing and labelling these thoughts as ‘what-ifs’ can mean that you can learn to stop the wave from growing larger, and to watch it rather than being tumbled around in the middle of it.
5. Meditate. When you find yourself ‘in your head’, you might notice that all of your attention is focussed on the worrying thoughts. Mindfulness meditation can support you to bring your attention into the here and now. There is a lot of evidence about how meditation practice can reduce feelings of anxiety and can support us to relate differently to worrying thoughts. It is an ongoing practice and a skill that we can develop. I have found that regular meditation has helped me learn to observe what my thoughts might be doing and be more aware of when I might get hooked into them. There are some helpful meditations here and here which can provide some starting points.
6. Draw it out. Listen to what thoughts are there, and where they are bouncing to and from. Grab some paper and something to write or draw with and ‘brain dump’ the different worrying thoughts that are there for you. Get as creative as you like. Externalising the contents of our mind onto a piece of paper can be therapeutic and thoughts might sometimes feel less powerful when they are ‘out there’ rather than inside our heads.
7. Notice the content of the worrying thoughts. Ask yourself how much of this is within your control. Some things might be, some might not. Explore gently letting go of the things which are out of your control. I talk about this in my short video about the ‘circle of control’.
8. Choose problem solving. Although worrying might feel as though you are problem solving, they are different processes. Worry often focuses on the worst case and the feelings that can accompany this can mean it might feel difficult to think clearly. In contrast, when we problem solve, we think about how we can deal with an issue effectively. Just focus on one thing if there are a few things that you are concerned about: keep it manageable. It can help to do it with someone else if that works for you: this can offer a different perspective; or if the problem also has an impact on that family member or friend, you can work together as a team. Consider options relating to the problem and the pros and cons. Come up with a plan. Write it down. This problem solving resource has some good ideas
9. Give yourself a time slot for problem solving. If you notice that you are worrying, say to yourself that you will come back to the particular problem within the worrying thoughts that you would like to focus on. Problem solving takes energy and attention so allow yourself a time without other distractions and limit the time that you spend.
10. Be kind to yourself. Some of these ways of relating to worrying thoughts might be new for you. Like learning any new skill, it can take time to develop new patterns. Notice your achievements, however small, because small things become habits over time. I like the idea of ‘beginner’s mind’ when learning something new: I find it helps me to be kind to myself in the process. Beginner’s mind is an idea from Zen Buddhism which means having an attitude of openness, curiosity and a lack of preconceptions about a new experience.
Jane Williams is a counsellor who integrates mindfulness-based approaches and self-compassion into her work. She is experienced in working with clients on a broad range of issues. Jane supports people to explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, finding a meaningful way forward and the courage to make the changes that they may be seeking.