Worry is an emotional state that everyone experiences. In some cases, it serves us well. In other cases, it can be detrimental to our well-being or even paralyze us. This can be magnified when we have children often leaving us feeling stressed and out of control. There is a simple technique that I discovered a few years ago that has helped me avoid worrying too much.
Before I get into the technique, let’s step back and examine what worry really is. Don’t skip over this. It’s critical to understanding the technique.
Let’s go to Wikipedia for a definition: “Worry refers to the thoughts, images and emotions of a negative nature in which mental attempts are made to avoid anticipated potential threats”.
That’s a mouthful but let’s break it down.
“Thoughts, images, and emotions of a negative nature” means that whatever it is we are worrying about is negative. We are thinking about a negative outcome. A worst-case scenario. What could go wrong.
“To avoid anticipated potential threats” means that the purpose is to help us mitigate any harm that could come to us. However, it also uses the words “potential threats”, which means that those threats could materialize but they also might never happen.
We are thinking about what could go wrong in the future and dwelling on it.
We are imagining a negative scenario (or many scenarios) that may or may not ever happen.
There are two steps that you can take to help reduce the stressful feeling of worry.
First, go to your worst case scenario in your mind. Eliminate all of the others. Just deal with your deepest, darkest fear related to whatever is going on in your life. Everything else will pale in comparison.
Once you’ve identified the worst possible outcome (and you may feel full-on panic thinking about it), just try to relax and examine the details of that scenario and ask yourself “is it really that bad?”.
In many cases, further reflection will reduce the amount of worry you are experiencing because you’ll realize that even your worst possible outcome is 100% manageable.
For example, you might be worried that your son forgot to wear a coat to school and it’s colder than expected. You wonder if you should go home, grab it, and bring it to him at school. You’re worried he’s going to be too cold. What if he’s shivering at recess? What if the teachers think you’re a bad parent? What if he gets sick?
Upon further reflection, you might come to the conclusion that if he’s cold and shivering he will likely survive just like you would in that situation. He’ll be able to go inside and warm up. You know you’re not a bad parent. Some parents send their children to school wearing far less. If he gets sick, it’ll likely just be a cold which will wear off within a week. He may suffer a bit and keep you up at night but it’s nothing you haven’t gone through before and you know he’ll recover just fine.
If your worst case scenario is something so unbearable and you’d want to avoid at all costs then you could either mull over in your mind what you would do if that were to happen or you could move on to the very effective technique that I learned to help avoid worrying too much.
Second, if the worst case scenario you’re imagining is something unbearable then imagine something else.
This isn’t about avoiding the topic. This isn’t about eliminating the worst case scenario. This isn’t even about trying to imagine the good that may come after a horrific situation.
This is about is using your imagination to shift how you’re feeling.
It’s the feeling of worry that’s stressing you out. Therefore, it’s the feeling you want to eliminate (or reduce).
For example, your daughter is out for a bike ride by herself for the first time. She is out of sight and she’s been gone for a while. She could have fallen off her bike or been hit by a car. What if she’s hurt? What if she’s dead?
Your worry is real. The threat of danger is real. And the worst case scenario you’re imagining is a potential. Thinking about this is eating you up inside. It is worrying you sick.
And here’s the worst part… there’s nothing you can do to prevent anything bad from happening in this moment. You have no control over what will happen.
So how do you stop worrying?
The only thing you can control in this moment is what you’re choosing to think about, which is the very cause of your anxiety.
Shift your thoughts. Do it gradually. It will be impossible for you to jump from an anxious state to one of complete calmness so don’t even try. Start with something easy.
The goal is to feel slightly better. And then slightly better again. And then slightly better again.
Using the example above, you may start with a thought like: I know I’ve taught her everything I can about traffic safety. She’s been pretty good at navigating traffic when we’ve been out riding together. I’ve been biking together with her for years. She isn’t going far. She knows the exact route to take and we’ve gone that way a million times. Maybe she ran into a friend along the way. She could come home smiling and laughing any minute.
Start with something that feels slightly better and is absolutely believable. Notice how I didn’t go from thinking she could be dead to she could come home smiling and laughing any minute? That’s too big of a jump.
There is always a different outcome that could happen.
There’s usually a good chance that what you’re dreading doesn’t occur. In which case, all of the stress is for nothing.
This technique is something that has completely changed my life from one of worry to one where I can consciously control my thoughts, which in turn controls my emotions in order to feel better.
Next time you’re feelings of worry come up give this a try. It will be uncomfortable at first. It will likely be challenging those first few times. But I promise it’s worth it.