How to Stop Worrying and Have a Happier Life

We may not be able to run away from our worries, but how do we keep them from running our lives? In a bid to manage the agonizing, we asked a handful of experts for tips on how to get a grip.

We often use the terms “worry,” “stress,” and “anxiety” interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Each has unique qualities and iden­tifying which one is plaguing us will help us better address it. Registered psy­chologist Kristin Buhr, a director at the North Shore Stress & Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver and co-author of The Worry Workbook, breaks down the differences.

Worry is a negative thought you have about an uncertainty in life. Worries tend to focus on the assumption that something negative will come from future events or from the outcomes of occurrences that happened in the past.

Stress involves your reaction to pressures placed on you. You feel spread thin or are overwhelmed because life is demanding too much of your limited time, energy or some other personal resource. While worries are thoughts, stress is a feeling.

Anxiety is your mental and physiological response to a perceived threat. It’s like the body’s smoke detector-it senses danger and signals your body to rev up to deal with it. While worry takes place only in the mind, anxiety can have physical effects, like speeding up your heart rate. Worry can, however, trigger anxiety when your mind perceived imagined “what ifs” as real threats.

While worry, stress and anxiety are normal, intense and frequent anxiety can become a problem, You might have an anxiety disorder if, for instance, you have recurring sleep issues or you’re skipping out on your customary activities. Excessive anxiety can be focused on a fear of something specific, like social gatherings (known as social anxiety) or a host of experiences (known as generalized anxiety disorder).

Why Worrying Can Be Worth It

1. It protects you.

“If you’re not at all concerned there could be danger, you’re not going to take precautions,” says Buhr. That voice of worry can remind you to put on your seat belt or check that you turned off the stove. It keeps you safe.

2. It motivates you.

Whether you have a speech to deliver or a home reno to tackle, thinking about what could go wrong can spur you to get to work. “A little bit of worry lets you know what’s important and might actually move you to pre­pare,” says Buhr.

3. It promotes problem solving.

A 2006 study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping tracked the worries of university students in Australia and found that they were often solving prob­lems while they were agonizing. So, while it feels unpleasant, worry can be productive.

Ditch “What If”

If you’re an excessive worrier, you probably have trouble dealing with uncertainty because you’re concerned it will lead to a negative result. What’s more, you likely believe that you won’t be able to manage that outcome. Buhr says that’s why most worriers develop generally negative “safety behaviours” to help them avoid risks, such as opting out of situations that scare them or ask­ing for affirmation from others when they’re unsure.

The trouble is, you can’t avoid uncertainty entirely, and the more you try to, the scarier it will seem. Fortu­nately, most of the time, things turn out just fine, but telling a worrier this is unlikely to calm their nerves.

The best way to get comfortable with uncertainty is to expose yourself to it and see that those imagined worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Even when some­thing does go wrong, you can handle it. So if you tend to worry about being late for appointments and always leave 30 minutes earlier than necessary in case of accidents or traffic, Buhr suggests doing away with that buffer. You’ll see that you do make it in time or, if you don’t, the person you’re meeting will likely be understanding. After starting with that type of simple change, work your way up to bigger risks-such as a career shift or a cross-country move.

How Mindfulness Meditation can Be an Antidote to Worry

Emily Thring is the founder of the Quiet Company, a meditation studio in Toronto that seeks to foster mindful experiences.

What is mindfulness meditation?

It’s about focusing on your breath in the present moment and connecting with how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing, without judgment.

How does that practice target worry?

Worrying is about future scenarios. Mindfulness grounds you in the moment, reducing that anxiety of what’s to come so you can be more present with what’s happening now.

Do these principles help when you’re not meditating?

Mindfulness isn’t just about what happens during the meditation—it’s about how it translates to the rest of your life. So if you’re in a situation where you get frus­trated, you have the ability to stop and centre yourself by slowing your brain down and by not reacting. When you’re being mindful, you’re taking time away from your to-do list and the worry and the bustle so that when you come back to those things, you’ve created space for yourself It’s like closing all the tabs in your Internet browser. When you reopen, you’re running a little faster and you’re more connected to yourself.

How should one get started?

Meditation isn’t something you do once and then feel a tremendous change in your life. It takes consistency and commitment. I recommend that people begin with a few minutes at the same time every day. Also, joining a local group can help you face potential chal­lenges as you practise more frequently.

Exhale Your Worries

When you’re overwhelmed, Thring recommends a simple breathing exercise called box breathing to slow down your mind and help you feel more in control. Here’s how:

Inhale for a count of four, hold for four seconds, then exhale for four and hold again for four seconds before starting again. Repeat this for two minutes, working your way up to longer spans of time as needed.

Worry Dreams Decoded

Sometimes our concerns keep us up at night, but other times they come through in our dreams. “Worry dreams usually show us images from the psyche in an effort to help us,” says Ursula Carsen, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist who specializes in dreams.

(Related: The Real Reasons You Had a Nightmare Last Night)

She explains that many dreams are trying to tell us to stop and take a break from something that’s over­whelming us. A classic example is when someone dreams that their teeth are falling out. “They’re probably biting off more than they can chew;’ explains Carsen. Other worry dreams include running after a train that’s already left the station or showing up half­dressed for an interview.

But not all worry dreams feel bad. “Even some flying dreams, as much as people like them, can sig­nal that you’re facing something way too real, or way too heavy, and trying to rise above it,” says Carsen.

While frequent worry dreams could be a cause for concern, Carsen says our dreams are more likely to tell us about the apprehensions we don’t recognize when we’re conscious. If you have a recurrent worry dream, it’s time to consider what might be troubling you in real life. Once you face it, the dreams are likely to end or transform into something new.

The Importance of Getting It All Out

Telling a friend or family member what’s worrying you, or even saying it aloud to yourself or writing it down, can allow you to gain some perspective. “It’s a little easier to challenge worries—to recognize that if there is a negative outcome, it’s more of a has­sle than a horror—when your worries are on paper or said out loud, rather than floating around in your head,” says Buhr.

Warding Off Apprehension

Taking care of yourself can help protect you against excessive worry:

  • Exercise for at least 150 minutes a week.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Reduce caffeine and limit alcohol.
  • Limit screens and social media.
  • Get seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
  • Adopt stress-relieving habits, such as yoga or hiking.
  • Undertake activities that move you out of your comfort zone.

Is Worry Contagious?

Though it’s healthy to share worries with others, when you’re surrounded by friends who fret, you might notice yourself feeling more anxious. A 2014 German study found that even witnessing someone else in a stressful situation can cause your own levels of the stress hormone cortisol to spike.

Buhr says there’s no need to avoid those influ­ences. “But you want to be aware of how certain peo­ple affect you and how that gets you thinking,” she adds. “Find balance by also seeking out people who have healthy perspectives.” Worry might be conta­gious, but a positive outlook could be infectious, too.

Next, learn if laughter could be a great medicine for stress and anxiety.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada