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This is Your Brain on Worry: Tips to Stop the Cycle and Worry Less

Ashley Haugen

Ashley Haugen
October 10, 2019

Do thoughts of the “what if” variety keep you up at night? Are you usually the one to point out the dangers that surround you and others? Does worrying seem to be your M.O.? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. You, me and around 40% of Americans experience some degree of worry or anxiety on a regular basis according to the American Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

A little bit of worry is normal and healthy, but when does it cross the line into something else? And what’s the matter with worrying a lot in the first place? Today’s post will dive into those questions as well as provide some ways to worry a little less and live a healthier life.  

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Anxiety vs. Worry

Worry and anxiety are often used interchangeably, although they really are two different things. According to the Harvard Health Blog, worry is a component of anxiety, but mainly focused on the cognitive part. This often manifests in thoughts of “I can’t do this,” or “what if this happens” that generally come and go. On the other hand, anxiety disorders are characterized by severe, persistent worry that is excessive for the situation, and extreme avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations. These symptoms cause distress, impair daily functioning, and occur for a significant period.

As Guy Winch, PhD writes, a few other key distinctions between worry and anxiety are:

  • Worry can trigger problem-solving while anxiety is more diffused
  • Worry creates mild emotional distress and anxiety is more severe
  • Worry tends to be temporary or situational while anxiety can linger

It’s important to know the difference so that you can seek the right level of help. And while worry may only be a part of anxiety, both still put stress on the body which can impact our health and wellness over time.

This Is How Your Body Reacts to Stress

Whether it’s worrying about how you’ll make it through tomorrow’s marathon of meetings, or something bigger, like being able to afford a house, emotional stress and anxiety create a stress response in your body, beginning in your brain. Your senses send information to the amygdala, the area of your brain responsible for emotional processing, and the amygdala, in turn, interprets that stimuli to perceive safety or danger. If there’s danger perceived, it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping adrenaline throughout your system, increasing your heart rate, dilating your blood vessels and allowing for more oxygen intake. From here, cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone) gets revved up and keeps the body on high alert. When the “threat” passes, cortisol levels fall and the parasympathetic nervous system starts calming things back down.

This would all be the perfect fight or flight response when staring down a lion, but not so helpful when stuck in traffic, or getting frustrated by a co-worker. Even persistent low-levels of stress can keep the stress-response in the “on” position, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into your system on an ongoing basis, and with it a host of unfavorable side effects, like:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Compromised immune system
  • Muscle tension

So, what’s a worry-wart to do? Is this just another thing to add to the list of things to worry about? Hopefully not! There are plenty of ways to break the cycle of worry and start feeling more calm. Read on for some of my favorite strategies.

6 Tried-and-True Ways to Stop Worrying So Much

There have been moments in my life where days were defined by fear of the unknown and what the future held. From dealing with a rare health issue to navigating toxic work environments, I’ve truly put each of these strategies to use when things felt like too much to handle. Pick one or two that you can practice over the next few weeks.

  • Figure out what’s in your control. The best remedy for worry, in my experience, is to figure out what you can control, and what you can’t about the thing you’re worried about. Then, do something about the things you can control. For example, when I first moved into my apartment building, I worried about what would happen if there was a fire. (We’re on the second and third floor.) It kept me up at night. Finally, I decided that instead of worrying about what could happen, I’d be prepared. I bought fire escape ladders for the bedrooms upstairs and made sure our extinguishers were full. On the other hand, I came to terms that I couldn’t control how other renters behaved in the building. Being able to take action on what I could control was enough to give me peace of mind. This is a crucial step to stop worrying — what is in your control, and what isn’t? Give up what you can’t control. Do something about what you can.
  • Use a mantra. Repeating a reassuring phrase to yourself can help in a few ways: 1) It can focus your mind on one thing, helping to shut out the thoughts of fear and anxiety, and 2) studies show that repetition actually has a calming effect on the body. Try repeating, “all is well,” or “everything is okay” to help yourself feel better. Or, check out this list of mantras to choose one of your own.
  • Deep breathing. Inhale … exhale. There’s a reason why this is the oldest trick in the book. Breathing deeply supplies oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the one responsible for calming things down after the flight or fight response. It’s also something you can control when everything feels out of control. Focus on breathing in for 5-7 seconds and out for 5-7 seconds.
  • Visualization. There are two ways to use visualization techniques to your benefit. The first is to visualize whatever you’re nervous about going well. I often use this technique when traveling, because I experience travel anxiety. I take five minutes to close my eyes and see myself arriving to the airport on time, riding in an airplane safely, and arriving at my destination calm and happy. If you want to try a different technique, visualize a place you love or that makes you feel happy and start with your senses; what do you feel on your toes? On your face? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? Practice going through your senses until you feel more calm.
  • Social support. Having people to turn to for emotional support has been well-documented as a way to maintain physical and psychological health. Try talking to your friends and family about the worries that keep you up at night, and if you don’t have anyone to turn to, a counselor or therapist can help. Research therapists in your area using this handy tool from Psychology Today.
  • Physical exercise. According to the ADAA, Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

When Worrying is Actually Good for You

Not all worry is bad. In fact, research has shown that worrying can also have positive effects on behavior, motivating people to take action and prepare for negative experiences and appreciate positive experiences more. For example, those with moderate worry about a chronic ache or pain, may seek out medical help and get advice on how to mitigate future injury before it becomes a bigger issue.

Worry can also help you prepare for worst-case-scenarios, and be better prepared for them. For example, we all worry from time to time how our loved ones would cope if we died, and for those who are motivated by that worry, getting life insurance or writing a will gets done, ultimately providing peace of mind and safeguarding those families. So, not all worry is created equal—and sometimes it can be just the right amount of fuel to get things done.

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