Do you worry all the time? And about everything? Then, it likely interferes with the quality of your daily life.
The founder of psychology William James said of attention:
“[Attention] is the taking of possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
Speaking of the characteristics of attention, James adds,
“Focalization, [and] concentration of consciousness are of its essence.”
What does this all mean? James discusses this too. “[Attention] implies a withdrawal from something to deal effectively with others.” (Source [PDF])
Insightful though James was on the definition, characteristics, and implications of attention, he was at a loss for how to cultivate it. In fact, James believed – as did many experts up until around a decade ago – that attention was a fixed, innate capacity. We now know that this is untrue.
The heart of this article is how to stop worrying through brain training.
Perhaps the most indispensable part of said training is the sharpening of attentional skills in general, to regulate adverse emotions, in this case, worry, in particular.
We’ll approach the main topic gradually, first discussing why worry should be counteracted.
For our purposes here, worry is defined as “Disturbing the peace of mind of the individual, causing emotional distress, mental agitation, or both.” This definition also happens to be similar to that of the Oxford English definition.
Not All Worry is Bad
It must be understood that worry is a standard (many say normal) part of everyday life. The extent to which such feelings are normal is debated among various people and different professions, including brain scientists (neuroscientists), evolutionary biologists, and even contemplatives.
From a scientific perspective, neuroscientists have found that some regions of the brain – the amygdala, limbic system, and others – fire in conjunction with an individual’s feelings of agitation or distress. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, it’s well-known that our distant ancestors were faced with stressful, life-or-death situations nearly all of the time. As a result of this constant exposure to extreme hardship, scientists posit that humans have inherited neurological mechanisms (e.g., the fight-or-flight response), which makes us prone to worry.
Nearly all people will agree that feelings of mild apprehension and worry can stimulate us to take action. Without such a stimulus, we’d probably have little motivation to, say, work for a living.
Anxiety and Worry
“When the level of anxiety you experience is no longer adaptive or helpful to your performance and becomes a barrier to your enjoyment of life…you are “almost anxious.” ~ Luana Marques, Ph.D. (Source)
Outside of medical diagnoses, anxiety and worry can be thought of as synonymous. From a clinical perspective, however, the differences are significant. It is crucial to understand this difference.
Anxiety disorders (Not “Worry disorders”)
It’s estimated that upwards of 275 million people worldwide have an anxiety disorder. In fact, this number equals more people than the populations of Russia and Mexico combined!
Anxiety disorders consist of five types: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety Disorder, or “Social Phobia.” (Source)
While each of these disorders differs somewhat, many people experience – to a greater or lesser degree – a combination of two or more of the following symptoms:
- An urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking about something other than the present worry
- Difficulty controlling worry
- Gastrointestinal (G.I.) problems
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Experiencing trouble sleeping
- Nervousness, restlessness or tension
- Weakness or tiredness
“Walking away from the hospital after the biopsy from hell – not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind – I had an intuition of a highly unusual blue-white clarity. This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” ~ Winifred Gallagher, “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” (p.8)
Let’s now delve into four habits that you can use to train your brain to ignore the worry.
Habit #1: Come back to the present
This one is numero uno for a reason – and that is, mindfulness, properly practiced, is perhaps the best antidote to worry.
The rationale is deceptively simple: the vast majority of our worry stems from ruminating about the past, or apprehension of the future. When we worry, the present moment disappears.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master, says it beautifully: “Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to live in the present moment.”
“Practice mindfulness” isn’t just some nice platitude that’s worn out it’s welcome – its benefits are based in solid science. In a 175-study analysis (“meta-analysis”) of mindfulness literature, the “effect size” (how much an intervention helps, according to current research) was most significant for anxiety. Moreover, the effect size for subjective feelings of stress, which “worry” would fall under, was also substantial.
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to practice mindfulness. The most popular is undoubtedly mindfulness meditation, which consists of two practices:
(1) Focused-attention meditation: The meditator picks one object (say, the breath) and tries to keep their focus on that object.
(2) Open-awareness meditation: Paying attention to the “flow” of experience, moment-to-moment, without judgment (e.g., MBSR, or mindfulness-based stress reduction.)
One can also practice mindfulness throughout the day, which is arguably the most beneficial. To do so, try and keep your attention on what it is you are doing, no matter what it is, moment-by-moment. Also, pay attention to the sensations in your body, as well as your thoughts.
The writer’s favorite definition of mindfulness that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who defines it as “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Habit #2: Write down both productive (and pointless) ruminations
If your brain doesn’t shut up (a phenomenon called “rumination”), ease the turbulence by writing whatever it is down on paper. If you find yourself trying to keep something in mind only to be thrown off again, write whatever keeps popping into your head down on paper.
It turns out that writing down the object(s) of your rumination may also improve your problem-solving skills. In a study published in the journal Anxiety, the authors challenge the popular notion that “worry may be helpful for defining and analyzing problems.”
After assessing the worriers’ abilities to concretize (“make real”) potential solutions to a defined problem, the authors noted an inverse relationship between worry and concreteness.
However, study participants who were permitted a specialized chart to elaborate on their solutions demonstrated more concreteness in their responses. In other words, brainstorming on paper works better if you write things down.
Habit #3: Get at least some exercise every day
This one is nothing new. It’s quite well-known that physical activity improves body and brain function. However, many are unaware as to the therapeutic effects of exercise on anxiety and worry.
Per a literature review published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports, increased physical activity has “combined anxiolytic [anxiety-reducing] and physical health benefits,” and maybe “a promising additional treatment option for people with anxiety disorders.” Importantly, the study’s authors include “worry” and “excessive fear” as characterizations of anxiety. It stands to reason, then, that physical exercise is beneficial in both clinical and non-clinical anxiety cases.
Many people are turned off by the demands of exercise on their time. Such a feeling is understandable, if not indicative of priority mismanagement (some of these folks have no misgivings about watching 35.5 hours of T.V., for example.)
Be that as it may, it isn’t necessary to become a “gym rat.” It’s entirely possible to get in 30 minutes of exercise without even stepping into a gym. How? Here are some ideas:
– Park further from your office and walk it
– Take the stairs
– Get outside on your breaks
– Get an exercise mat and do simple calisthenics
– Stand up and do some jumping jacks
– Go for a brisk walk whenever possible
#4: Simplify your life
Much of the worry that we encounter in life is the result of societal conditioning, which promotes a chaotic lifestyle. There are countless examples, but here are some of the more common worries people express:
- Getting and keeping a good job
- Buying a house and then worrying some more when someone else buys a bigger, nicer one
- Your commute
- Money and finances
- Work and career
- Attractiveness and physical appearance
- Families, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and acquaintances
- What we have to do tomorrow
- Not getting enough sleep
- And on, and on.
Here’s the thing that’s essential to keep in mind: there is ALWAYS something to worry about. The trick lies in placing voluntarily placing our attention elsewhere – and not feeding the beast. So perhaps the easiest way to do this is by simplifying our lives. Indeed, fewer possessions, fewer distractions, and fewer obligations would be a great place to start!