Worry is a natural mechanism that helps us anticipate and respond to problems. That’s its function. In times of uncertainty, that natural threat detection and alerting system can jump into overdrive and seemingly cause as much harm from stress, anxiety and depression as the dangers it’s programmed to help us prevent or mitigate.
Today, the world seems to be a more unpredictable place than usual. People are under pressure from all sides and worries are running high. However, there are ways of dealing with your worry and anxiety so that they doesn’t cripple you, drive you crazy or, at the very least, keep you from a good night’s sleep.
Here’s how to check your worry to within reasonable and productive limits by understanding and working with, not against, its two main roots – the physical and the psychological.
Soothe Your Worry Away With Food (But Not Haagan Dasz)
Worry is a natural trait. It’s based on looking at the world around us and anticipating and responding to threats to our well-being. In today’s world, that alerting system went hyperactive BEFORE there was ever a pandemic. It seems everyone and their dog suffered anxiety and stress attacks and increasing bouts of depression. Much of this, but not all, is a direct result of our poor diets and physical health. See for instance my article The Mind-Gut Connection: Depression Linked to Gut Bacteria and What We Eat? which looks at recent research on the impact of diet on mental health.
We are chemical beings and what we eat matters. Calm and clear mental and emotional states depend on nutrients found in real food, not on will-power and positive thinking that only take us so far. They certainly don’t depend on refined carbs, fast food, sugary snacks, and processed meals. Eat crap and no amount of meditating will keep us zen for long. Instead, we’ll find ourselves spinning like lunatics in our heads. If you think a hyperactive and out of control kid on sugar is bad, what is a lifetime of eating sugar and other junk doing to your ability to think and act clearly?
Researchers are proving again and again that our diet is highly linked to mood, concentration, stress levels, anxiety, depression and more. If we’re not consuming the nutrients we need but also taking in junk that is harmful, our bodies and minds won’t be able to build, maintain or repair themselves very well – which means we short-circuit, fracture, break down, or completely malfunction. Not just our bodies suffer but our minds, emotions and moods. In short, we worry more and have higher incidents of anxiety and depression.
The first step in soothing your worry is to look at your diet. If you’re not eating a diet that is 70% real food – fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and tubers – you’re probably not getting the nutrients you need to function well, especially in times of great stress and uncertainty. Likely a poor diet is further exacerbating the situation. This means a lessened coping ability and a greater susceptibility to anxiety, stress, insomnia and depression.
Put down the Haagen Dasz, bagel, donut, pizza, bagged snacks, etc. except as treats now and again rather than daily or frequently during the week. Start eating real food so that your body actually gets its proper dose of vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes, flavanoids, antioxidants and more that won’t be found in the shelf-stable junk our modern society subsists on.
On the physical health side, we also know that exercise helps alleviate mood and shoots us full of feel-good endorphins that can help combat stress and anxiety. Living on our couches and screens is only adding to our problems. Go outside for sunlight so that your body can make real, not synthetic, vitamin D. You’ll get more than a vitamin boost too. According to researchers, as little as two cumulative hours a week outside in nature improves mood and lowers stress. See Health News: Why Sunlight Is So Important For You.
The bottom line is that if our physical bodies aren’t well, our mental health will probably suffer. If nothing else, we’ll lack a solid chemical foundation for our minds to optimally respond to the challenges around us. To build that foundation, start with your food and physical well-being. That way you give yourself a fighting chance to meet today’s troubles.
The Worry Function
When the external world throws nothing but monkey wrenches at us, it’s natural to freak out and lose sleep. This is where the psychological aspects of worry come into play. We should understand them but also learn how to deal with them so that the worry functions helps rather than hinders us.
Worry is a call to action. When we’re still spinning over decisions and what is or could go wrong, it’s usually a sign that we haven’t taken action to mitigate or avoid our fears, that we’re overwhelmed by too many perceived threats, or that we feel things can only get worse and obsess over how bad it’s going to get. Whatever your worries, there are ways to keep them to within reasonable limits so that you can at least sleep at night.
The Action Gap
The main function of worry is to alert us to perceived threats and get us to either prevent or mitigate them. Worry grows worse in the gap between recognizing a threat and the amount of time we’re taking to prevent or mitigate it. A growing numbers of worries and no action is a recipe for sleepless nights. Here’s how to take smart action to quiet the alert system.
First, ask what you are worrying about. Then write down each problem or concern in concrete terms. Cross out everything on that list that you don’t have control over, circle what’s within your control or influence and focus on those circled concerns that you then take steps toward handling or mitigating.
Make plans, take action. That will immediately begin to diffuse the worry that was generated in order to make you respond to a situation. Further, that action puts us back in control of our lives.
It’s not always easy in practice for us to act. Sometimes we know action needs to be taken but are paralyzed by indecision or we are waiting for perfect conditions or perfect understanding of a situation. Perfection never happens. We can only act on the best information at hand.
If all you’re doing is stewing over what to do, it’s time to sh*t or get off the pot. That’s an inelegant piece of advice from a family friend that always helps me move forward. Having committed to a path gives direction, resolution and allows you to find and marshal resources more decisively. As a result, stress bleeds away along with a number of built up worries. Why does this happen? Your alert system (worry) realizes you’ve acknowledged the threat and are taking actions to handle it. Job done, it can quiet down about that threat and start scanning for new ones.
Overwhelming Number of Problems
Unfortunately, our minds like to look everywhere for new problems. There are problems and then there are problems. Before 2020’s surprise upending of everyday life, we mostly worried over superficial things like being trendy in what we drove, wore, or how we entertained ourselves. There was minor office politics and gossip, as well as trying to catch the eye of a sexy someone for short-term fun. What were you focused on 5 months ago that seems laughable now? Worrying about whether to take a vacation or stay-cation to better afford that new iPhone seems of little importance when many people have lost their livelihoods, bills and rent are past due, and bank accounts are empty or nearing it quickly.
This is where we have to really take stock of our situation and understand what is important and what isn’t and contrast that with our personal resources and the resources available to us. Are we worrying about everything or only what’s really important and what we can control or mitigate? Too many “what ifs“ will debilitate us.
How many problems do you have that are real versus those that have yet to happen? Write them down, cross out anything that is beyond your control, let alone if it deals with societal or global issues. If you don’t have input into the problem in a meaningful way, let it go. It’s not your problem beyond acting like a decent human being and is just giving you an ulcer.
Real worries of immediate importance are things like rent or mortgage payments, utility bills coming due, income, debts that need paying, food on the table, reliable transportation, etc.
If a thousand problems seem to be hitting you all at once, prioritize them and take them one by one. Focusing on everything will paralyze while focusing on one problem will lead to action steps. When your mind starts to clamor about the other thousand problems, remind it that you’re dealing with the current problem and will tackle the others next. Usually that helps subdue the worry for a bit as the alert system has been acknowledged and you have committed to action, though generally it takes a few times reminding it for it to get the message.
Again, worry is the mechanism that arises to get us to respond to perceived threats. Once we respond to the threat, our worry naturally starts to ease. Sometimes simply admitting that we can’t act now but resolve to act once the opportunity arises is enough to help calm our worries to manageable levels as well.
What Was, What Is & What Will Be
And then there is the worry that things can only get worse and which leads us to obsess over how bad it’s going to get. Our imaginations can be highly creative on this point. However, if we’ve bolstered our physical health, made our lists of problems, crossed out what we can’t control, and taken actions on what we can control, these worst case fears should lessen and subside.
Our minds are often in the past or the future but rarely are they squarely in the present. The bad of the past has already happened and can’t be changed. The bad of the future is merely conjecture and not real. No matter how bleak things seem, what is happening now is temporary and can change. Heck, the world changed unexpectedly just a few months ago so anything is possible. The point is that the future is highly changeable, not set in stone. There are as many opportunities as there are disaster scenarios. You’d be better served looking for the opportunities than throwing your energy into worries about the bleakest future that hasn’t happened yet.
That’s easier said than done. If those fears about the future persist and the mind continues to dredge again and again over what might happen while ignoring what you’re doing to address the situation, it means the alert system is going a little haywire. That’s natural in times of emergencies. A little freaking out is fine. It’s okay not to be okay and to tell yourself that repeatedly if need be. Then after a while you take a breath and start repairing the haywire alert system.
Most of us haven’t learned how to be the boss of our inner dialogue or advise that control system. Instead we listen to the stream of thoughts and let it churn and destabilize us. The default is for our threat alert system to constantly scan for possible threats, then make us worry over them and the endlessly new threats it’s conjuring. As you’ve probably experienced, it’s not the most elegant or helpful system. Overactive, it can drive us crazy. But the truth is that we can turn the mind into a helpful partner rather than a fearful, worry-wort barking at shadows.
I’m a big proponent of meditation and mindfulness which help develop clarity, focus, concentration and the ability to direct the mind rather than be directed by it. To stop worrying so much, learn techniques to calm, stop and direct the mind. It’s not easy at first – the alert system has been operating on its default programming all your life and gotten very good at it – but it gets easier and offers a great deal of relief over even short amounts of practice. That can take you from worrying endlessly about worst case scenarios to directing your mind and alert system to focus on the immediate and near at hand, as well as what is going right in your life.
See my articles Stuck at Home Because of Covid-19: The 7 Day Meditation Challenge, How to Stay Sane in an Insane World, and What Meditation REALLY Is.
Control the Narrative
Our susceptibility to worry grows out of both physical and psychological roots. On the physical side, the physical health of our bodies and minds from the nutrients we consume or avoid can greatly impact our mental well-being and anxiety levels. Good mental well-being and low stress depend on a solid foundation of health and good diet.
On the psychological front, uncontrolled worry arises from the gap between what we assess as a threat and the time and actions taken to respond to it. Uncontrolled worries also form when our alert system runs overtime and unchecked to detect every possible threat under the sun. Addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of worry helps us recover from the stress of anxious thoughts that don’t want to stop.
We live in interesting times where everything seems to have been thrown into chaos. The economic and social impacts are still playing out and may do so for a while. That means our alert systems are causing us to worry in the face of real and perceived risks to our well-being and survival. We’re all scrambling to adjust and figure out how to respond. That we have only so much control over the events of our lives can make our worries worse.
In times like these the wise focus on what they can control or influence, assess their resources and those being offered to assist them, make plans from the best of available options, take action, and hope for a better tomorrow.
Don’t just worry, take action to move forward. You’ll feel better and sleep better too.
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