A restless mind, chewing over the same brooding thoughts, and no way to switch it off. Being stuck in a cycle of worrying is no fun at all. So, where does this worrying habit come from and how can you unlearn it, or learn how to manage it? In this article, Margit Nooteboom, a psychologist at OpenUp, is going to take you through this process step by step.
“Will this work?”, “How am I supposed to do this?”, “What if…?”; these are all normal thoughts that we have to deal with. However, there is a difference between the kind of thinking you do when you’re examining possible solutions and approaches, and worrying, where you get swept up in a stream of thought and it’s difficult to stop.
When do we start worrying?
Often you start worrying when you’re feeling unsettled and stressed and don’t have the head space to think calmly. Psychologist, Margit Nooteboom, often observes this at the practice as something that can cause a lot of stress and create a negative spiral.
Margit: “For example, you might get stuck in a cycle of worrying if you’re lying in bed thinking excessively about your work and what you still need to do. This causes you to sleep less well, less deeply or for less long, which reduces your energy levels the following day. And when you’re feeling tired, this in turn has an effect on your mind’s ability to rest.”
High expectations and worrying about tomorrow
We might also get swept up in a negative thought spiral when we set certain (i.e., too high) expectations for ourselves. Margit explains: “Suppose you every intention of exercising two to three times per week, but you’re not able to manage it.
This might cause you to start beating yourself up, with your inner critic taking over and making you think thoughts like “you’re lazy” and “you have no discipline”. Not only does this negatively affect your self-esteem (“you can’t do anything right”), it’s also likely to block you rather than encourage to do more exercise.”
Thinking about the future and imagining potentials scenarios is a trap many of us fall into. Margit: “When you’ve got a big event the following day, for example, a job interview, a presentation, or a date, then this might also be a source of worry. Often we’re worrying about a scenario that is completely unrealistic.”
Also see: 5 Tips to Stop Your Chronic Worrying
Letting go of your worries
During consultations with her clients, Margit explores what is causing this stream of thoughts and what you can do about it. There’s a step-by-step process. It always starts by becoming aware of your thought patterns. Margit explains:
1. Becoming aware of your thought patterns
“Together we’ll do a meditation exercise that focusses on observing your thoughts. I ask clients to become aware of their thought processes. Often, I explain this using metaphors, such as the busy highway analogy from Headspace, or thinking of thoughts as clouds in the sky that come and go.”
2. Charting your cycle of worry
“Next the question is whether you can catch yourself getting caught up in a negative stream of thought or thought spiral. It sometimes helps to literally write your thoughts down on paper. This allows you to distance yourself from them even more. Ultimately your thoughts are just mental activity, nothing more, nothing less.”
3. Challenge your thoughts: Are they true?
“All the thoughts you have may feel true, but are they? Very often this is not the case. Challenge your thoughts and consider if they are true. On what facts are these thoughts based? Is everything really as bad or complicated as you think it is right now?”
4. What would be a better thought?
“Next, you can start thinking about your desired outcome. Ask yourself a few questions. What would an ideal scenario look like? What behavior does that involve? Can you think of a more helpful thought that would move you towards this positive outcome?
5. Replace negative thoughts
“Next try to practice replacing your worries with more positive thoughts. Do this every time you catch yourself worrying. That’s how you slowly but surely break the cycle.”
Don’t assume all your thoughts are true
Ultimately, the trick is to keep reminding yourself that a lot of our thoughts aren’t true. Keep training yourself to replace these unhelpful thoughts with ones that help you progress. Because, as hard as it may see, it is possible to break a cycle of worrying.
Would you like to talk to Margit or one of our other psychologists about your personal situation? It’s very easy to schedule a no-obligation meeting and we’d be happy to help.