Can We Control What We Worry About?

Anxiety Worry Treatment

Have you ever wondered why people can be so different when it comes to their worries and concerns? Why is it that one young girl might be struggling with a desperate need to get perfect grades, while another boy can’t stop worrying about the germs he’ll have to encounter in the cafeteria? Or why might one middle aged man be fretting about climate change to the point of losing sleep and frequently yelling at others in conversation, while another young woman can’t stop thinking about the possibility of her loved ones dying, and has to make frequent calls to her fiancé to make sure’s he’s okay?

Much of what our brains focus on is out of our control. The reasons why we develop specific worries are, of course, extremely complex. We may have had negative experiences in the past that have led us to become focused on specific threats and triggers. But we also have our own unique biology. From birth, our brains simply make different decisions about what’s important and/or threatening. No matter the cause, though, the fact is that we all have the tendency to become fixated on certain concerns more than we want to. And despite our best efforts, our brains can be very resistant to our attempts to stop.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have any control over our worries. We may not be fully in control of which problems our brains want us to focus on at any given moment, but we do get to decide whether or not we pay attention to our brains’ signals, and how we want to respond to those signals. And just like a child’s bad behavior, our responses can either make our worries worse, or gradually reduce them. If you find yourself overly fixated on something in life and just feeling defeated, give these steps a try. You may find that you have more control over your worries than you realize.

  1. First of all, accept your limitations. At this point, your particular worry has become a major theme in your life, so your brain is going to keep signaling you to address it for quite some time. This is your brain trying its best to be helpful. But realize that all of your thinking and responding has probably been your way of feeling like you’re doing something about a problem you can’t fully solve. Sometimes it’s necessary to accept your own limitations, and realize there’s nothing more you can do. It’s also important to remember that there is risk and uncertainty in your life and the world around you that you can’t fully remove.
  2. Build your motivation to make a change. Ask yourself how much your worrying is doing to address the problem? Is it actually increasing your ability to deal with the problem? Or are you spinning your wheels? And making yourself feel worse? The thing you are worried about may very well be important, but that doesn’t mean your mental activity and your behavior is in any way helpful to you or the problem.
  3. Notice what tends to trigger your worry. Are there certain conversations, certain environments, and/or certain people that cause you to fixate on the concern?
  4. Notice how you usually feel when triggered. Do you become anxious? Agitated? Angry? Guilt-ridden?
  5. Notice what you do in response to getting triggered. Do you act in a way that is somehow self-defeating? Do you behave in a way that doesn’t feel like the real you, or the person you want to be? Maybe you engage in time-consuming compulsive behavior? Maybe you simply think about the worry for long periods of time? Or maybe you act out towards the people in your life.
  6. Once you understand your pattern, now the hard part begins. You have to 1) Catch yourself being triggered, 2) Accept the risk and uncertainty in life that is beyond your control, and 3) Change your usual, unhelpful response. If you usually think about the worry for hours on end, practice interrupting your mental activity and consciously directing your attention to another task. If you engage in certain behaviors with others (reassurance seeking or lashing out, for example), you may need to practice taking a few deep breaths and stopping yourself from repeating this pattern. Instead, try to focus your attention on those things in the world that make you feel good. And if you’re still having trouble reducing your response to your worries, try talking to a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and/or Exposure and Reponse Prevention (ERP). Ultimately, stopping your responses to your triggers is the critical step you must take, because it’s your responses that have been solidifying the worry as a major theme in your life.

Taking these steps won’t be easy. When you’re triggered, and feeling emotional, you are going to feel, with every fiber of your being, like you have to do something about the worry. But, don’t forget how unhelpful all of your past responses have been. And don’t forget the reasons why you want to break the worry cycle. If you can get better at “catching yourself” being triggered and stopping your usual response, you’ll be well on your way to taking your life back from your worry.