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How to stop worrying



Are you a worrywart?

Did you know that the word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan which meant “to strangle”?

If you’re feeling strangled by worry, read on to find out why we fret and how to loosen that tight knot of worry that’s choking you.


Why do we worry?

Worry is a common experience for people in general, but there are times when it becomes such a big deal that it takes over our lives, eclipsing any experience of joy or contentment.

And there are some people who admit to being constant worrywarts even though they would really like to be more relaxed about life.

So, if worry is so unpleasant, why do we do it?

Researchers have found six “benefits” that people cite for worrying:

1. If I worry about something, I am more likely to actually figure out how to avoid or prevent something bad from happening.


2. Although it may not actually be true, it feels like if I worry about something, the worrying makes it less likely that something bad will happen.


3. Worrying about most of the things I worry about is a way to distract myself from worrying about even more emotional things, things that I don’t want to think about.


4. If I worry about something, when something bad does happen, I’ll be better prepared for it.


5. Worry helps to motivate me to get things done that I need to get done.


6. Worrying is an effective way to problem-solve.


So, does worrying really help?

Do any of the six “benefits” above ring true for you?

Let’s look at each of them to see if they really accomplish what they are meant to.


1. If I worry about something, I am more likely to actually figure out how to avoid or prevent something bad from happening.

– and –

2. Although it may not actually be true, it feels like if I worry about something, the worrying makes it less likely that something bad will happen.


I placed the first two together because they are quite similar – they both hope that worry will prevent something bad from happening.

Note how this is different from benefit #6 which deals with problem-solving. These two are more about the worry itself helping you avoid or prevent something bad.

The tricky part of these particular ideas is that they create a self-reinforcing belief – something researchers call the “superstitious reinforcement paradigm.”

This means that you get negatively reinforced for your worry because the things you worry about usually don’t come to pass. So you conclude that worry = bad things not happening.

The problem with your conclusion is that the bad things probably wouldn’t happen if you didn’t worry.

Author Earl Conant says that only 8% of the things we worry about are legitimate, so it’s likely that you really don’t need to worry about 92% of the time.

We chuckle at baseball players who wear the same pair of lucky socks or eat the same meal before every game out of superstition.

But what about you? Are you continuing to worry because of a magical belief that you are preventing something bad from happening?

Maybe you should try lucky socks instead . . .


3. Worrying about most of the things I worry about is a way to distract myself from worrying about even more emotional things, things that I don’t want to think about.


Usually, when presented with something that makes us anxious, our heart rate increases. Worriers, though, when presented with a picture of something they worry about, have no change in cardiovascular response.

So, if you’re a worrier, you may feel reinforced by thinking your worrying must have “prepared” you to not respond physically to something anxiety-inducing.

However, what this really indicates is that you aren’t allowing the whole emotional picture to emerge around whatever it is you’re worried about.

You’re suppressing your fear.

Researchers found that people who worry and avoid their deeper fears are not able to learn from their fears as well as non-worriers.

For example, people who were afraid of public speaking were shown pictures of public speaking events. Non-worriers showed an elevated heart rate when shown the pictures while worriers did not (although they still worried about public speaking.)

However, when compelled to do several public speeches in a row, non-worriers learned that public speaking really wasn’t so scary while worriers still had the same level of anxiety as when they started.

So constantly worrying about something, although it might feel as though you’re controlling something you’re afraid of, really only prevents you from adding “corrective information” to your experience – that is, it doesn’t allow you to learn new information to overcome your fear.


4. If I worry about something, when something bad does happen, I’ll be better prepared for it.


Um, not so much.

As explained above, worry doesn’t allow you to learn how to overcome your fear, a key to being able to bounce back in life.

So, if the thing that you’re worrying about actually happens, you’ll still be anxious and not able to respond as well as possible.

Also, let’s think about this: What kind of life are you experiencing if you are constantly in a state of worry about things that happened in the past (which you have no control over) and things that might (but probably won’t) happen in the future?

What happened to the life that you are living right now? This present moment?

It’s gone in a cloud of worry.


5. Worry helps to motivate me to get things done that I need to get done.


Yes, it does.

Because you want to get rid of the terrible feeling of worry, you finally knuckle down and get the job done.

But why choose to be miserable to accomplish things rather than use any of the numerous positive motivators available to you?

Why not set up a reward system for yourself? When you get a task done, let yourself have that piece of chocolate or the walk with the dog or an hour of reading.

Go for positive reinforcement (receiving something good) rather than negative reinforcement (having something bad stop.)


6. Worrying is an effective way to problem-solve.

Again, not so much.

Here’s what worrying does: It brings up a lot of “what if . . .” questions. This is a good start to problem-solving but then, well, as Borkovec, et. al (1999) put it:

“Beyond this, worry itself does not contribute further to solving problems. One is either worrying, or one is problem solving. These two distinctive processes may alternate sequentially during a worrisome episode but never occur, by definition, at the same time.”

So worrying gets in the way of problem-solving because 1.) You can’t worry and problem-solve at the same time and, 2.) Worrying causes anxiety which interferes with your ability to concentrate and think rationally in order to problem-solve effectively.


How to stop worrying

There will always be times we’ll have a little bit of worry. We’re only human, after all.

But if you want to stop the chronic worrying that is making life miserable for you, try one – or all – of these research-based ideas.


1. Keep a Worry Outcome Diary

How realistic is your worry?

That’s really the bottom-line question that you need to answer.

This tool assists you in keeping track of what you worry about so that you can see if your worries are realistic or not.

Specifically, it looks like this:

1.) My worry:

2.) What outcome (end result) do I fear:

3.) How bad this outcome would be on a scale of 0-10 (0 = not bad at all, 10 = the worst thing that could happen):

4.) What really happened:

5.) How bad was the real outcome (same 0-10 scale as above):

Find a notebook and jot down these entries or copy and paste the above several times onto several pages on your word processor.

Then, throughout the day, 1.) note each thing that you are worried about.

2.) Write down what you think will happen that is so bad or scary about each worry.

3.) Rate on a scale from 0-10 how bad this feared outcome would be.

At the end of each day, review your diary for current and past entries and see if any of the outcomes have occurred for the things you were worried about.

Write down 4.) what really happened to the thing you worried about.

Then 5.) rate the real outcome on the same scale of 0-10 from step 3.).

Now compare numbers 3.) and 5.). Was the outcome as bad as you feared?

Most likely not.

Even if you do this Worry Outcome Diary for a week or two, you will soon find out that you can stop worrying about most of the things on your worry list because they’re not true!

Or at least the outcome – the very thing that you spent so much time and energy worrying about – wasn’t anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be.


2. Set aside a specific time to worry

One of the things that can happen if you are a constant worrier is that, because you worry throughout the day, you start to associate normal things in your life with worry.

If you’re worrying when you stop at Starbucks for your morning coffee, after awhile going into Starbucks might trigger worry.

If you’re worrying when you are cooking dinner, you might start to associate cooking with worrying.

Setting aside a 20-30 minute time for worrying during your day will do a couple of things for you.

• It will help break the associations between worrying and your normal daily routine.

• It stops the energy drain that occurs when you are worrying constantly throughout your day.

When you feel yourself start to worry, let it go and remember that you can worry all you want in your specified time period.

Alternatively, practice worrying on one day and choose not to worry the next. Then note whether there was any difference between the days in terms of outcomes or how you are feeling.

Did the worrying make your life better on that day?


3. Practice relaxation exercises and letting go

As you know, your body tenses up when you worry.

Conversely, if your muscles are completely relaxed, it’s very hard to think worrisome thoughts.

There are many relaxation videos and audio recordings online. Find one that works for you and take time to learn to relax.

As you are relaxing, if a worry starts creeping into your mind, practice letting it go. At least for the time that you are relaxing. It will be there again if you really need it!


4. Be mindful

Worrying, of course, is usually about things that have occurred in the past or what we fear will happen in the future.

You can’t worry about what is happening right now, in this moment.

And this moment is where life is happening for you.

Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and noticing your experience without judgment.

When you find yourself starting to worry, bring yourself back to the current moment and just notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking.

Have no judgment about either your emotions or your thoughts. Just notice them and be kind to yourself rather than beating yourself up for worrying again.

If you find it hard to stay in the moment, try using some grounding techniques that use your senses.

Notice how the countertop or desk feels under your fingers. Smell the aroma of coffee or the fresh air outside. Become aware of the different sounds around you.


5. Feel the fear and do it anyway

Remember that your worrying may be a way to feel in control of something that is frightening for you, something a bit deeper than the worry itself.

Keep asking yourself “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” until you discover what is so fearful to you.

Then, perhaps with the help of a trusted friend or a therapist, face your fear.

It’s the only way to overcome it.

Try out the scary thing – whether it’s public speaking, having a hard conversation with your partner, or looking at a snake at a zoo – and notice what happens.

Did the worst thing happen? Did you die from it?



6. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

You know the answer.

“Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

No one is going to stop worrying for you. You might just have to take yourself by the scruff of the neck, give a little shake,  and say, “It’s time – let’s do this!”

Do you really want to change?


You have the tools now so the rest is up to you.

Don’t let worry strangle you.

Use one or more of the above strategies – or mix and match! – and discover how to stop worrying.

For good.


How do you deal with your worries?



Borkovec, T.D., Hazlett-Stevens, H., & Diaz, M.L. (1999). The Role of Positive Beliefs about Worry in Generalized Anxiety Disorder ad its Treatment. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 6, 126-138.

Gladstone, G. & Parker, G. (2003). What’s the use of worrying? Its function and its dysfunction. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 37, 347-354.

Nightingale, Earl. The Essence of Success. Retrieved from http://www.nightingale.com/AE_Article~i~210~article~TheFogofWorryOnly8WorthIt.aspx, September 29, 2012.



Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.