If you’re wondering how to stop worrying, remember first that (evolutionarily speaking) your mind worries in an effort to protect you. Give yourself some grace. Then, remember that resolving a specific source of worry isn’t a long-term solution. Instead, you have to tackle worry at the source with tools like meditation, mindset shifts, and affirmations.
In recent years that I’ve realized something:
My brain simply wants something to worry about.
If I solve the thing it’s currently worried about, it’ll move on to something else.
Whether this is a symptom of an overly-anxious brain or inherent to human nature, I can’t be sure.
If you relate to this, you might be wondering:
“Okay, but how does this help me?”
Your brain is trying to keep you safe
Not long ago I read a book called How Not to Die.
It’s a book about diet, nutrition, and living longer.
One of my takeaways is that we shouldn’t guilt or shame ourselves for gorging on ice cream or eating a bunch of donuts.
It’s not healthy, but it’s absolutely natural that we’re doing this.
Because our brains run on an ancient operating system.
We prefer high-calorie treats because in the ancient foraging days, we would’ve come across treats like honey so rarely that gorging had only positive effects on our survival.
We face a similar dilemma with anxiety.
Our brains are trying to help us.
Our foraging ancestors would’ve been rewarded for constantly looking out for threats.
Calm and Zen-like attributes weren’t as likely to be passed on.
When you feel anxiety, know that this is your brain and nervous system using the rules of 15,000 years ago to try and help you survive.
When there’s nothing big to worry about, we sweat the small stuff
A few years back, I went on a solo trip to Bali with the intention of relaxing and learning to scuba dive.
Work had been busy and I was looking forward to an adventure.
Bali was beautiful, but soon enough the anxiety wheels started to spin.
The scuba instructor didn’t show up the first day, or the second day. With no other responsibilities to focus on, my brain fixated on this and turned it into a mini-crisis. Soon enough, I canceled my scuba plans and went on to explore other parts of the island.
I joined a tour on bicycle through villages and rice paddies, but in seeing other people traveling with their friends, felt lonely and wondered what I was doing there alone.
“Was it all a big mistake?,” I wondered in between half-read Kindle books on the beach.
By the end of the trip, I was telling people “yeah, Bali was great” while knowing that in reality, it was no vacation.
My brain was in full-time worry mode.
That’ll do, brain. That’ll do.
So, to recap:
- Our minds are in anxiety-seeking mode because they’re trying to protect us. (Those “what if” ruminations might have saved us from becoming lion food 15,000 years ago).
- If we solve one problem, our minds move on to the next.
Knowing this is sobering.
It’s frustrating to be shackled with minds that turn pleasant afternoons into worry-fests.
But knowing these facts helps us in two ways:
First, we’re not doing anything “wrong” by worrying.
Anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it isn’t bad.
It isn’t a sign of poor self-discipline.
Our minds and nervous systems are trying to protect us.
So at the very least, let go of any negative feedback loops. If you’re worrying about worrying, or frustrated about your anxiety itself: let that go.
Second, solving specific sources of anxiety is not a solution.
This is a hard one.
When you’re in the midst of worry, it can feel like solving that Big Scary Item at the top of your worry list is the path to erasing anxiety forever.
This is not the case.
Remember that your mind will move on.
You will find something else to worry about.
What can you do about anxiety?
You probably think I’ll say “just meditate” here, and the truth is-
Meditation is one path towards reducing anxiety.
It helps you detach yourself from your thoughts, which makes it less likely to get stuck in a worry loop.
You’re more likely to see your thoughts for what they are:
Just thoughts. Not reality.
Next, try affirmations.
Affirmations for anxiety are based on the psychology principle of “thought replacement.” If you’re able to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts (through regular repetition), you may be able to shift your identity and perception of yourself.
For example, if you’re telling yourself a story that you’re just an anxious person, you might counter that with a regular affirmation like:
“When I feel tension, that is my cue to remind myself to let go.”
Finally, you may also be able to shift your relationship with anxiety and worry by reframing it.
Remember that anxiety is your brain trying to help you.
And remember that solving the “issue of the day” isn’t a sustainable path toward tackling anxiety.
For further reading on worry and anxiety, check out:
- 51 Mantras for Anxiety
- How to Stop Overthinking At Night
- 33 Mindfulness Exercises for Present-Moment Living