Using mindfulness to help with worrying

Worrying is something we all do. A thought pops into our minds about something and we find that we worry about it. It can be helpful to think of worrying as an internal behaviour with an internal focus of attention. In other words, when we worry, our attention is not on the present moment, but on something that may or may not happen in the future. Worry comes purely from our imagination.

Worry is almost always future related. Sometimes we might find that we are worrying about something that has happened in the past, but if you look at it, there will always be some future implication.

Worry is also always threat related. It means that we think something bad will happen, and usually that we think that we won’t cope with it very well.

So when something pops into our minds about the future which is threat related, we think we need to do something about it. And so we worry, which makes us feel that we are doing something. But in reality, we are going round in circles in our mind, focusing on the worst bits about what might happen.

When we worry we are in problem mode and not in a solution focused mode. The more we worry, the more problems we find as we actually don’t focus on solutions. As we become more dependent on worry, we get more tired and anxious.  Worry is quite understandable, we all have a craving to know what will happen and how will things end.

So worry can be seen as a mental activity in the mind. It is something we do to try and remove a potential threat. And as worry is different to planning or problem solving, when we take an effort to actively problem solve something then this is helpful and orientated to action. Worry however, does not work and if often a passive activity. The only thing you get from worry is more anxiety in the here and now. Worry usually involves thinking about the same thing over and over again, usually phrased in the mind as “what if…”.

The thing is with worrying is that our bodies don’t actually know the difference between reality and fantasy. If you imagine something bad happening in the future, your body experiences that emotion in the here and now. We feel anxious when we worry because we can’t really do anything about the worry in the here and now. We picture something bad happening, but we so rarely picture us coping with the feared catastrophe.

We fear that we may be overwhelmed by experience. But we can absorb the impacts of being human, of change, of loss.

So although it might feel that we are achieving something by worrying, it is so different from any productive activity. To make it more productive it can be helpful to reflect on the following questions;

What am I worrying about? What is the threat?

Then actually reflect on how likely this is to happen or how many times it has happened in the past.

Then, rather than allowing the mind to automatically replay the worst bits over and over again, it can sometimes be helpful to actually stop and reflect on how you would cope, and what you would do if the feared catastrophe did occur.

Or alternatively it can be helpful to recognise when you are worrying and realise that this is all in the mind, and come back to focusing on something in the here and now. Something outside of yourself, or perhaps focusing on your breath. See how it feels to just pause and allow your attention to really dwell on the feelings of air passing in and out of your body. This can feel quite a relief at times of anxiety.

Worrying actually takes us into the imagined future and takes us away from the peace we have in the moment right now. And this moment right now is all we have. Do we want to choose to sacrifice what we have right now to engage in a process of worry that really doesn’t work anyway?

Worrying about these future related threats means you try and work out how to prevent these bad things from happening, or how to prepare yourself for the worst. We think that worry will help us cope. If you worry a lot then much of your life then lives in an illusion due to time and energy spent worrying. We simulate the future so that we can’t be taken by surprise. We try and prepare ourselves for impact.

But worrying assumes we have a good imagination. But when we worry we don’t. We try and predict what will happen, and we also try and predict the impact of what will happen. We try and predict our emotional response to an event. But we almost always underestimate our resilience. We have a primitive fear that we will be overwhelmed by some event. And we sense that something in us will be broken. But that doesn’t happen. So far you have survived everything life has thrown at you. So have some confidence in yourself and trust that you can cope with whatever life presents you with. Yes it will be tough at times, but I kind of think of tough times as just going up a level like in a computer game.

Mindfulness helps us be more present and to not avoid anxiety and worry, but recognise it for what it is. An imagined event in the mind that takes us away from the present moment and what is right in front of us.

In anxiety, our emotions, thoughts and physical symptoms get tangled up. We need to be mindful at these times.

So if you notice that you are worrying, you can use your mindfulness practice and turn worrying from an automatic process, to more of a conscious effort to solve any problems that can be solved. And if you are worrying about something that can’t be problem solved, you might choose to focus your attention on something else.

I think it was the Dalai Lama who said something like; “If there is a problem and you can do something about it, then why worry? If there is a problem and you cannot do something about it, then why worry?”