Worry is a natural part of being human, it shows up for all of us. Our minds have evolved to look for danger everywhere. Worry is our mind scanning for potential threats that might happen in the future. This is a normal and essential part of the human experience.
If we think back to thousands of years ago, worry was even more crucial for our survival. If we did not have an initial thought that maybe that tiger is going to harm us, or perhaps that plant is poisonous, or look out for that lion that always lurks behind the same tree we would all be dead and humanity would not exist.
Worry exists for a very good reason, and you need worry to show up from time to time. Trying to get rid of it would be a fool’s errand. It is not something we can stop. Worrying on the other hand, is something we do have some control over.
The Difference Between Worry and Worrying
There is an important difference to make between worry and worrying.
Worry is that initial thought that shows up when we sense uncertainty. It is automatic, we have no control over it. It’s our brain sounding the alarm – doing its number one job which is to keep us safe. Sometimes our worry is helpful and there is a very real threat that requires our attention. Often though our worry is a false alarm, like a smoke detector that goes off because we burned the toast.
Worrying is different than worry. Worrying is how we respond to the initial thoughts of worry. When we are worrying we are giving those thoughts all are full attention, and treating them as a very real threat – when perhaps no real threat is present. Worrying sucks us down a spiral, we keep going over and over the ‘what ifs’.
We are actively doing it, which means we do have control over it. If worrying is something you do often, it can feel like there is no choice as it has become such an ingrained habit. Almost as if you’ve fallen down that spiral staircase. Stopping it is definitely not easy, but it is possible.
The 4 Types of Worrying
It can be helpful to identify what types of worrying you tend to engage in. Some of these types do overlap.
- Mental Review: this is when we go over things that happened recently to gain more clarity, trying to convince ourselves that everything was okay. For example, maybe you were at a party, you left feeling great, like you had a fun time with your friends. Then the next day some doubt starts entering your mind – “maybe I was annoying, maybe I offended someone, maybe my friend Bob was upset with me”. You start going over the events trying to convince yourself that this did not happen, or gain more information about it.
- Mental Preparing: this is like mental reviewing but instead we are trying to gain clarity in the future. This is when you start going over what ifs – what if I miss my train? what if I become financially destitute? What if my wife leaves me? What if a loved one passes away? What if I am alone forever? This type of worrying is very future focused. You may get caught up in worrying about something that might happen many many years into the future.
- Reassurance Seeking: we reassurance seek when we ask the same question to people over and over. When we are reassurance seeking we are looking for a specific answer, namely that everything is going to be okay. This is different than asking a question to seek out information. When we are seeking out information we are able to tolerate ambiguity and accept whatever answer we get. When we reassurance seek we are trying to gain certainty in things that are impossible – maybe it’s a certainty that you will never get sick, or that everyone likes you. We may also do this internally, for example tell ourselves over and over that everything will be okay.
- Rumination: this is when we go over and over a perceived problem in our life. Problem solving is very helpful. Rumination can often feel like problem solving however it is very different. It is like out of control problem solving. We can get sucked into analysis paralysis, or get stuck trying to figure out a problem that cannot be solved. This can show up when we are faced with a dilemma – do I leave my job for a new one? Do I move to a new town? While there are important considerations to make in choices like these, we can start ruminating about what is the ‘correct choice’. If it is a dilemma, there will likely be pros and cons on both sides making no one correct decision. Another common rumination we might engage in is trying to figure ourselves out, maybe trying to figure out ‘what’s wrong with me?’ We might continually go over all our past mistakes trying to find some answer or solution.
Reasons Why Worrying Happens
There are two main reasons why we engage in worrying. Worrying does something for us, which is why we keep doing it:
- Controlling for Uncertainty: Life is filled with uncertainty. We do not know what the future holds. Worrying can feel like we’re in control of this, it helps us feel like we are gaining a sense of certainty. It comes from a good place, it’s us wanting to exert control over our lives and protect what is important to us. The issue is worrying can pull us away from what matters to us. We can become paralyzed by it, and not engage in the things we want to.
- Reduces Distress: This might sound odd, as worrying and feelings of anxiety that accompany it are distressing. However, worrying can provide some relief from other and perhaps more uncomfortable feelings – maybe it is a fear that shows up, or guilt coupled with the belief that if you don’t worry and something bad happens it will be your fault, or maybe it is some other difficult feeling. Worrying can provide some temporary relief from this, it can make you feel like you are solving a problem or preparing yourself for something bad happening. The issue is that this relief is very temporary, and there is a lot of distress that comes with worrying.
To sum things up there is a key difference between worry and worrying. Worry is a natural part of being human and helps protect us from danger, we need worry. Worrying on the other hand is more active, and something that we engage in. We do it because it helps us gain certainty and temporarily reduce distress.
How to Stop the Spiral of Worrying
If you find your worrying is pulling you away from the life you want here are some things you can do:
- First notice that you are engaging in worrying – one way to do this is identify what type of worrying you are doing – i.e. mental review, reassurance seeking, rumination, or mental preparing?
- Try embracing uncertainty – remind yourself of what you can control and what you cannot control.
- Practice making room for any discomfort that arises – for e.g. breathing into sadness, guilt, fear, or something else. Self-compassion can be a useful tool for this, check out more info on this topic here.
- Engage in what you want to do in this moment – do you want to engage in worry, or is there another move you are wanting to make in this moment that would pull you closer towards the life that you want? Getting in touch with what is important to you can provide a useful guide, check out exercises for this here.
Here are some books that can help you break free from worrying:
If you find worrying is controlling your life and you are looking for help reach out to a mental health professional.