Is worry ruining your life?

Otter peeking out in fear from behind a rock

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Are you a worrier? Do others say that you worry too much? Maybe you think they’re wrong: that they’re oblivious to looming problems. Whatever you believe, worry can affect your happiness. Ask yourself honestly: is worry ruining your life?

Many people’s lives are made a misery by constant worry. If you’ve been prey to worry, you know how draining it is.

Because the list of things to worry about is endless. Every worrier has a unique set of worries that cause distress. 

You may worry about making mistakes, or offending someone, or forgetting to turn the iron off. You may worry you’ll fail at work, or be exposed as a fraud.

When driving to an appointment, you may worry you’ll be late, or lose your way, or even that you’ll have an accident. Perhaps you worry about money issues, even though you have plenty of financial backup.

Now it’s normal for most of us to have fleeting worries now and again. But if you’re worrying a lot of the day about a range of issues, it may be turning into a problem. 

Worriers believe terrible things will happen

Generally, worriers feel as if disaster is looming, although they often can’t put their fears into words.

They just have a constant sense of dread that they or their loved ones are somehow at risk. 

So their minds are full of “what ifs.” What if they have cancer; what if their grandchild gets run over; what if they say something rude by mistake?

As one worry subsides, another one jumps in and takes its place. And this goes on for most of the day. 

Worry makes your body tense

If you’re a worrier, you may have tension headaches, or neck and back pain. You may clench your jaw a lot, and even grind your teeth at night. (Ask your dentist to check.)

Sometimes your heart seems to beat too fast, and you’re often keyed up or agitated. Relaxation seems impossible.

You may feel nauseous or have butterflies in your stomach. Tightness in your chest makes you worry you can’t breathe. Then you tend to take in quick, shallow breaths. Sometimes you feel shaky, faint or light-headed, and have a dry mouth.

When you’re shoved in the spotlight, your mind goes blank, and you feel as if you have trouble making sense. 

You have trouble getting to sleep, or staying asleep. You replay the day endlessly to see if you made any mistakes without realising. When you’re tossing and turning for hours, your worries seem magnified a hundred times over. 

Your tiredness may make you short-tempered with others, especially if they don’t seem worried about the same things. You can’t understand how they can ignore all the things that might go wrong. At times, it really does seem as if worry is ruining your life.

Worries form a loop tape in your head

The same horrible thoughts run round and round, never letting up. They stop you enjoying life, or being able to focus properly on work or study.

Sometimes you can’t even connect with family or friends. You find yourself not listening, because your mind is so taken up with your worries.

Worry can even compel some people to take care of every last detail of others’ lives. They feel responsible for making sure nothing goes wrong, and think they won’t be able to stand the guilt if anything bad happens.

Worry is intensely unpleasant

Even if you’re a high achiever, your mental energies can be largely taken up by your fears. And much of your physical energy is spent managing body symptoms, such as tension.

But human beings don’t like this level of discomfort. Normally we only keep doing things that are rewarding or good for us in some way. We try very hard to stop doing things that are intensely unpleasant.  

And worry is intensely unpleasant.

Why keep worrying?

Why then do worriers keep worrying, if it’s so unpleasant? Why not just stop?

In fact, some worriers do try to stop. But they report feeling that they can’t control their worrying. It just seems to happen, regardless of what they do. Feeling helpless to change, they therefore keep on worrying.

But to keep doing something so unpleasant, there must be a payoff. Some benefit or advantage must be produced by worrying.

So something is maintaining the worry process. Otherwise worriers would stop worrying.

And of course, this sounds crazy to worriers. They say it’s not like they choose to worry!

Most worriers don’t feel they have control over their worries. And it’s not like they see any obvious benefits to worrying. Some worriers who are more aware can even see how worry is ruining their life.

You can reduce your level of worry

However, you can reduce the amount that you worry. And the key is understanding you are actually gaining some benefit from worrying.  

Because these benefits may be indirect, they’re harder to identify. And so you’re not aware of them. But for many worriers, worry is actually rewarding in some way.  

Let’s look at a related example now.

Do you procrastinate?

Lots of people claim they work best under pressure. 

If there’s something they need to do, they ignore it for a while. But once the deadline looms, their anxiety shoots up and they worry non-stop. They start working feverishly, perhaps through several nights.

To do so, they may dose up on coffee and junk food, and cut themselves off from others to focus better. Their anxiety levels can be extreme, and they feel dreadful.

Once they’ve finished, however, they swear that this is the only way they can motivate themselves.

But is this really true? Because we humans are good at kidding ourselves.

Extreme worry isn’t effective

These procrastinators would probably produce better quality work, if they spread it over a longer time. That way, they wouldn’t worry as much, they’d have less stress, and would be able to sleep better. 

But procrastinators get to spend most of their time doing something more interesting or appealing, or easier than the designated task. So even though procrastinating can make them feel stressed, it also has strong advantages in their eyes.

So they keep acting like this whenever they have a task they don’t want to do. And because they think procrastinating works for them, they don’t want to change. 

Similarly, worriers will keep on worrying if they sense that worry works for them in some way.  

Having no worry doesn’t work either

On the other hand, totally getting rid of worry doesn’t work either. We actually need some level of anxiety to get through our lives. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount to make sure worry isn’t ruining your life. 

Imagine if our ancestors hadn’t worried at all. 

What would have happened to a cave baby that wandered out into the snow? It would only survive if its mother worried about its welfare.

How safe would the clan be, if the leader didn’t worry about aggressive rivals nearby? And wouldn’t they have starved if they didn’t worry about storing food for winter?

Worry was adaptive in the past

In those days, dangers truly did lurk around every corner.

The worry these dangers caused was so unpleasant, it couldn’t be ignored. In effect, worry triggered humans to make plans for their future well-being. So worry and anxiety stopped humans from being wiped out completely.

And over a long period of time, people who worried a lot were probably more successful in raising babies than those who didn’t worry much at all. So as a species, humans developed brains that tend to worry.

This means many of us have a genetic predisposition to some level of anxiety or worry.

However, the level of worry or anxiety may also depend on how much stress or trauma you experience over your life. But even today, we still need mild levels of anxiety to function properly. 

We still need some anxiety today

If you’re a worrier, you probably don’t want to hear this. Perhaps you’re looking forward to getting rid of anxiety completely.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to do that. And you’d be in big trouble if you had no anxiety at all.

What if you had no anxiety at all?

Take the case of Sam. He’s an ambitious salesman at a big car yard. He thrives on the high pressure thrills of landing big contracts. His goal is to outdo all the other salespeople in the state.

Now imagine that last night, Sam magically lost his capacity to worry or feel any anxiety at all.

This morning, Sam hears the alarm ring, but rolls over. He’s in the middle of a great dream, and he’s not going to let work get in the way of a good sleep. Who cares what the boss thinks?

Mid-morning he wanders into the kitchen, has a fry-up instead of his normal healthy muesli, and rounds it off with a half-litre of ice-cream. What’s life for if not to enjoy?

Getting dressed, Sam ignores his usual clean shirt and pressed trousers. Instead he pulls on his old grey track pants and a grubby T-shirt.

Unfortunately, he’s forgotten he’s giving a presentation to the managers of several car companies this afternoon.

He’s also ignored the dozen or so frantic messages left by his assistant. What’s the panic, guys?

When Sam finally saunters into the meeting, he’s surprised that his boss shoves him out into the corridor. Sam shrugs his shoulders when asked for an explanation of his behaviour.

He’s not sure what the problem is, but the sight of his boss having a fit is hilarious.

So he’s quite relaxed when he’s fired and told to get out. No worries – more time to grab a few waves with his mates!

Sam isn’t anxious – about anything!

Sam couldn’t care less about ruining the career he loved. He doesn’t care that he’s destroying his reputation. He’s not even worried about having no money for food, his mortgage or car payments.

With no anxiety to motivate him to keep his life in order, he’ll probably play video games most of the day. Once complete apathy sets in, he won’t even bother going out surfing with his mates.

What’s the point? Who cares? Sam certainly doesn’t.

With no anxiety, nothing matters

Having no anxiety at all would be bad for us in every way. We’d never get anything done.

Our lives would slip into chaos. We’d never eat properly, we wouldn’t study, work or care about others. No-one would get proper medical attention.

We’d even abandon our kids to their fate.

Mild levels of anxiety are best

So generally, finding a comfortable range of anxiety is important. Not too much, and not too little.

The lower-to-middle range is where you’re alert, functioning well, and feeling confident. You’re motivated to head off problems, by taking effective action. 

If you do have some high anxiety, it’s usually brief and disappears quickly once the issue is sorted.

However this is different to the prolonged, intense worry that is ruining your life. 

1 Constant worry is exhausting

The anxiety caused by constant, prolonged worry is exhausting, and affects day-to-day functioning.

This sort of chronic worry seems to have a life of its own. The longer it goes on, the more your physical and mental well-being suffers. 

Because the physical symptoms are so unpleasant, you focus on getting rid of these. The rest of your time is spent worrying about what might happen in the future.

But you’re not actually getting to the real reasons that you’re worrying.  

2 Worry is future-oriented

Worries are all focussed on what might happen. Not now, not in the past, but in the future.

This future may be in the next 10 seconds, the next 10 minutes, or the next 10 hours, days, weeks, months, or years.

Your worries churn round and round in your head. But you never seem to get anywhere with your thoughts.

3 Worry takes over

In your perception, you’re busy working out what to do by worrying so much. 

The reality is different, however.

You’re not actually working out any plan to deal with the original problem. And you’re not taking any effective action to solve it. You simply have the perception you’re achieving something.

So worriers feel as if they are actually taking action. But they’re not. 

The worry process achieves very little other than making worriers feel terrible. But because they think worry is useful, they keep on worryinng.

Want to break this vicious cycle?

Here are some tips to follow.

1 Solve problems and worry less

Problems are solved by using the problem-solving process.

This means you form a plan of action, and then use the plan to take effective steps to fix the problem. If circumstances change, you can revise your plan. But until you put the plan into action, your work is done.

There’s no point in going over and over your worries any more. You’ve done all you can with this problem-solving exercise. Worrying more won’t achieve anything.

So worrying doesn’t help solve problems. Problem-solving solves problems.

However, if you’re a worrier, you probably don’t reach the problem-solving phase. You’re stuck going over and over all the terrible things that could happen.

And you’re firmly convinced that what you fear might happen, really will happen.

So you overestimate the risk of bad things happening. It really does feel as if worry is ruining your life.

2 Wait to see what happens

In fact, what you’re worrying about may never happen. 

Once you’ve learned to problem-solve, you’ll feel more in control. With a plan in place, you can tell yourself you’ve done all you can at present.

You’ll need to remind yourself every time your worries start up again. Tell yourself you’ve got Plan A and Plan B ready to go, depending on how events unfold.

Write your plans down so you don’t forget them. You won’t need to do any more at this stage.

Once the predicted event occurs – and only then – you can work out the exact steps you need to take. Allowing yourself to continue to worry won’t change anything.

Read this article to learn more about how problem-solving can stop worry.

3 Let your worries go

Brush up on your mindfulness skills to help yourself let go of worries. When you notice the urge to worry, allow the thoughts and feelings to be there.

But don’t give them any attention. Refocus attention from your worry to a worthwhile activity. Each time a worry thought pops up, notice it and let it be there.

Remind yourself not to take it seriously.

We often overestimate the awfulness of what might happen. Remember, we also underestimate our ability to deal with what we fear.

Remind yourself you can deal with whatever comes up. You can get help, but you are also a capable person. You’ve proven this by dealing with hundreds of situations in the past.

You may not have conquered the world, but you got through. And that’s all you need to do.

4 Realise you don’t have to worry

Many worriers would dispute this. Worriers often truly believe they can’t let go of their worries, because they have a purpose. They worry that if they don’t worry, no-one else will. 

So here’s another possible indirect benefit of worrying: worriers can feel they’re worrying for other people as well. That makes them feel that somehow they’re protecting them.

However, whether they worry or not doesn’t change the outcome.

5 Drop worry to enjoy life more

Constant worry drains enjoyment from life, and uses energy and mental space needed for your own dreams. You’re blocked from following your own goals and shaping your life.

Choose to pursue interests that can absorb your thoughts, so that worry is put to one side. Exercise can also be helpful in improving your sleep, mood and general well-being. Increasing your social connections through clubs, informal visits or volunteer work can all divert your worry habit. 

6 Achieve greater self-mastery

Worry makes it difficult to be in charge when you’re always worrying. You don’t develop the sense you’re determining the direction of your life. Too often, you’re distracted by thoughts or emotions to be effective.

Worry also prevents you seeking meaningful challenges. With less self-confidence, you don’t believe you’ll succeed. So let go of worry and achieve greater self-mastery, to allow you to pursue your own dreams.  

Take some small steps towards that goal or dream you’ve had for so long. Choose to put your mental energies into something meaningful, rather than repetitive worries.

Worriers face many challenges

However, simply getting through the day is a challenge for many worriers. Worry traps them in a morass of imaginary fears. And it takes so much energy there’s nothing left for other pursuits.

Are you are tired of worry ruining your life?

If worry is ruining your life, learn how to identify and challenge your anxious thoughts. Learn how negative self-talk can affect your life.

Identify the worry messages you constantly send yourself. Decide if you want to keep on taking any notice of them.

But don’t keep on letting worry ruin your life. 

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