Letting Go: How to Overcome Worry
By Elena Simonsen
“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace.”- Anonymous
You probably worry about something at least occasionally. Maybe you’ve worried about a presentation you had to give at work, about a family member’s health, or when you’d have time to get your house cleaned before company came over. Many people find it hard to stop worrying- and perhaps you’re one of them! When you can let go of worry, you can improve your ability to focus and be fully present during whatever activity you are performing. Before we talk about how you can let go of worry, let’s focus on what worry is and how it both helps and hinders you.
What is a “worry”? According to Merriam-Webster, worry is:
“mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated: anxiety”
When you worry about something it often feels like you cannot stop thinking about it. You may have an impending sense of doom regarding what you’re worrying about. Your mind might feel like it’s racing, preventing you from focusing on work, spending time with your friends / partner, or enjoying other aspects of your life.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant uptick in reasons to worry. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about what will happen if you or your loved ones get sick or fear you may lose your job due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Or maybe you are worrying about what will happen next due to all the uncertainty and inconsistent messaging in the media.
Regardless of what it is you worry about, the bottom line is that worry causes significant emotional distress and can negatively impact your life in several areas, including sleep, nutrition, and personal relationships.
Let’s shift to focusing on the functions of worry to better understand it and learn to let it go
The Protective and Harmful Effects of Worry
Worried thoughts are a product of your anxiety. Anxiety, like all other emotions, is a messenger. When you feel anxious, your body may be trying to prepare you for an upcoming event or keep you safe from a threat. For more information on anxiety as a messenger you can check out my previous blog post on how to manage your anxiety here.
Many of the clients I work with have told me that they believe their anxiety protects them in some way. Some of these protective functions include:
● Feeling more prepared to face future events. By worrying about the future, you may feel like you are exploring all possible outcomes of a situation. While this may be true, the feelings of anxiety attached to these thoughts can be very distressing, especially if the worry distracts you from your work, relationships, or just being present in the current moment.
● You may be able to tune in to an important message from your body that lies beneath your worried thoughts. Remember - our emotions are messengers. The anxiety underlying your worried thoughts may be attempting to tell you something important... For example, if you are worried about an upcoming work deadline, you may feel compelled to complete your project on-time. If those worries were not present, completing the project might not seem as pressing.
Although it may feel helpful to worry about something, constant or out-of-proportion worry has harmful effects on your mind and body. Here are a few:
● An increase in the stress hormone cortisol. The anxiety accompanying worry triggers your body to start producing the stress hormone known as cortisol. This hormone serves a protective function; in the proper dosage, it compels you to take action in the face of a threat. When your body continues to produce cortisol after a threat has passed, the cortisol level your body needs may be thrown off. According to Mayo Clinic, having elevated cortisol levels for a long period of time may lead you to experience:
○ Difficulty sleeping
○ Issues with digestion
○ Trouble focusing
○ Increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease
● Worry can be paralyzing. Rather than spurring you to take action, as anxiety and worried thoughts are meant to do, you may become so caught up in your worried thoughts that you feel like you’re unable to do anything about the worry. You may feel like your thoughts are racing and you cannot stop them. The more frequently and swiftly the
thoughts come, the harder it may feel to stop them, and the more your anxiety may seem to increase. Eventually you may feel caught in a vicious cycle, unable to stop the thoughts or the worries.
● You may experience what is known as a panic attack. If you are unable to stop the worried thinking, your anxiety may escalate to what you may know as a panic attack. Panic attacks typically occur suddenly and seemingly without any warning. You might be experiencing a panic attack if:
○ You have an intense fear or dread of the future
○ Your heart is racing uncontrollably
○ You feel like you cannot breathe, or begin hyperventilating
○ You feel like you are going to die
○ You feel detached from reality
○ You have the chills
○ You begin to feel nauseous
So even though worrying may seem to be helpful at times, it can lead to some serious (and frightening!) long-term impacts. The good news is that although you can’t prevent yourself from worrying in every situation, you can let go of your worries in a way that protects you from prolonged stress and anxiety.
There are many different strategies and rituals that you can use to help you effectively acknowledge and let go of your worried thoughts. Here are a few that I often recommend to those that I work with:
● Delay your worries. Set aside a time each day that you will reserve for worrying. Be very specific about when you will worry; maybe it’s for 30 minutes at 7pm right after dinner, or at 7am after a morning meditation. Be sure not to schedule this time right before bed, as it may make it difficult to fall asleep. When you notice that you are worrying about something, ask yourself, “Do I have to address this right now?” If so, get down to business and address the situation that you are worried about. If not, write your worry down (maybe in a note on your phone, in a notebook, or on a sticky note) and agree to return to the worry at your designated time.
○ You may find your thoughts returning to the worry throughout the day. Each time this happens, remind yourself that you will return to your worry at your designated time, and bring your focus back to the task at hand.
● Talk to someone. When you worry it may feel like you are stuck inside your own brain, and might be hard to take a perspective other than the one you currently have. In these instances, it can be helpful to phone a friend (or bring the issue to your next therapy session) to get someone else’s point of view of the issue that you’re worrying about. After talking to someone else, you may feel a bit more at ease regarding what you’ve been troubled about or at least get some feedback on how you might better manage your worry.
○ Caution! Be mindful of whether you are venting about the issue at hand or reaching out for support. While it may feel good to vent in the moment, you may actually end up perpetuating your worry if you begin to ruminate on your worry or you feel your anxiety increase. When you talk to someone about your worry, try to remain as objective as possible. Additionally, it may be helpful to speak with a trained professional (i.e., a therapist) regarding your worry if you are struggling to discuss your worries without venting.
● Create a plan of action. You may find that the most distressing thing about your worry is the uncertainty of the situation that you are worried about. Many people find creating a plan to address their worry to be a helpful strategy to use in overcoming the distress. By creating a plan of action, you may feel a sense of control over your worry, which may help to decrease your anxiety about it.
○ For example, if you find yourself worried about getting into an argument with your siblings on an upcoming family vacation, you may want to prepare yourself by writing down who you can call or what calming strategies you can use (i.e., a quick meditation or a song you can listen to) to approach the situation without intensifying any uncomfortable emotions.
● Develop a ritual for letting your worry go. This one is super important! Sometimes it can be very helpful to physically release your worries in some way. Some simple practices I recommend are:
○ Smudging sage in your home (if you can) in order to “cleanse” yourself and your living space of your worry. For more information on the history and practice of smudging, click here
○ If your worry is related to a specific person, write a text or email to the person expressing how you feel about the situation at hand. Do not send the message to the person in question unless appropriate. The act of writing out what you want to say in and of itself can provide you with a sense of relief and may allow you to express thoughts and feelings that you may be struggling to let out.
○ Write your worries down on a piece of paper, then tear up the paper and throw it in the garbage. The act of physically tearing up your thoughts may help you to feel like they are no longer in your mind.
○ Use mental imagery to let your worries go. For example, you may picture your worried thoughts as a cloud that you gently blow away and say goodbye to. Or perhaps you see your worries as a sailboat drifting out to sea and away from your mind.
Now that you know what worry is, the purposes it may serve, its potential impacts, and how to manage it effectively, I hope you feel better equipped to face any potential worries that may arise for you in the future.
While the strategies I have suggested to manage worry may be helpful, you may find yourself needing additional support to process and manage your worried thoughts and feelings of anxiety. If that’s the case, reach out to a skilled therapist here at Be Your Best Self & Thrive to get additional guidance and support!
Be Your Best Self + Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body and spirit that work together for your benefit. If you are looking for a therapist who is experienced in helping you to manage your worry, Elena Simonsen is a clinician who can help you explore ways to cope. Book your free 15-minute session with her here.