In my previous post, I explained the worry process in detail: what it is, what keeps it going, and why it’s so hard to stop worrying. In this post, I’m going to show you what you can do about it to put an end to the worry cycle.
A quick review: the crux of the issue is that all forms of anxiety get maintained in the long run by anything you do to try to avoid the anxiety in the short term. In the case of generalized anxiety and worry, the trigger is uncertainty about the future. The subtle way that most people avoid uncertainty about the future is through the process of mental analysis: trying to predict, plan, and solve uncertainties about the future by thinking really hard about them.
So, what can you do to put a stop to your worry?
This is an incredibly powerful, deceptively simple idea. With any kind of anxiety, the way to decrease anxiety in the long run is to purposely expose yourself to the things that trigger your anxiety in the short-term until your brain learns that they are no longer dangerous and the anxiety subsides naturally. This is the basis for Exposure Therapy. It is the opposite of avoidance, which is why it works.
For worry, uncertainty is the trigger.
Therefore, for your worry to get better, you need to be exposed to uncertainty without doing anything at all to avoid it. The way to do this is to simply stop trying to analyze the things you are worried about. Worry is all about questions. To get it to stop, you have to stop trying so hard to answer the worry questions.
You’ll need to allow things to be uncertain without doing anything at all to try to resolve the uncertainty.
Sound scary? It should. In the short-term, this will actually increase your anxiety because you will no longer be doing the thing that you had been doing to avoid it. But what will eventually happen if you drop the agenda of trying to analyze and figure out the answers to the worry questions is that your brain will actually learn that uncertainty is not dangerous and you can actually get to the point where uncertainty no longer makes you anxious. If the trigger for the worry cycle no longer makes you anxious, then there will be no more worry cycle.
Now you are probably wondering: “Okay, but that’s easier said than done… how do I just stop analyzing?” To answer this, we need to make a distinction between 2 types of thoughts: automatic thoughts and effortful thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are thoughts that just pop into your head.
They can be random and they pop into your head whether you want them to or not. The key point here is that with automatic thoughts, you have no control over them whatsoever. This is nothing unique to anxiety, every single person on earth has automatic thoughts pretty much all day long every day. On the other hand, effortful thoughts do not just pop into your head…
Effortful thoughts are the process of trying to figure something out, analyze, predict, plan, etc.
The key feature of effortful thoughts is that they are a process you must actively choose to go through. These are not thoughts that just randomly pop into your head, this is you trying to do something with your thoughts. Usually, effortful thoughts are trying to in some way solve or get rid of the automatic thoughts that bother you.
The difference between automatic thoughts and effortful thoughts is the level of effort. Automatic thoughts require no effort, effortful thoughts require a lot of effort. Automatic thoughts are a passive process. Effortful thoughts are an active process. Automatic thoughts are something that happens to you. Effortful thoughts are something you choose to do.
I often tell my clients, “there is a big difference between having a number pop into your head and doing math in your head.”
The good news here is that although you have no control whatsoever over the automatic thoughts, you have complete and total control over the effortful thoughts. Because they take effort, you can choose to not do them. You can choose to not put in the effort.
You don’t realize it, but you actually do this all the time. Thoughts pop into your head frequently that you do nothing with. For instance, if you see a cute dog in the park, you might think to yourself “that’s a cute dog.” That’s an automatic thought, it just popped up without you trying to do anything.
You probably then do nothing with that thought. You do not try to analyze it, you don’t try to figure out if the dog will continue to be cute in the future, you don’t try to figure out how to change the situation of seeing the cute dog, and you don’t try to stop thinking about the cute dog. You have the thought and then do absolutely nothing with it.
This is all you have to do with automatic thoughts that make you anxious: do nothing with them.
The whole problem is that when you have a painful automatic thought, you try to do something with it. It’s not that you are using a bad method to do something with the thought and it’s not that you’re not good enough at it.
The problem is not the kind of something you try to do with the thought, the problem is just that you are trying to do anything with it.
This is because of what I mentioned earlier: short-term avoidance maintains anxiety in the long term. Doing anything with the thought is short-term avoidance and therefore keeps the anxiety and worry going. So instead of doing something with it, do nothing. Don’t do the effortful process, just let the automatic thought be there but ignore it. Then you won’t be feeding the anxiety through avoidance and it will eventually stop.
So let’s say you have the worry “I’m afraid I won’t have enough money in the future.” Typically, when that thought pops into your head, you would start to try to figure out whether it is true and what you can do about it. Next time this thought pops into your head, try what I’m suggesting: notice the thought, but ignore it. Don’t try to figure out how much money you will have or how you can get more money. Just let the thought be there without doing anything about it.
This is definitely easier said than done, and takes a lot of practice, troubleshooting, and fine-tuning; which is where therapy can help.
But that’s the basic gist of how you put a stop to worry: stop trying to answer worry questions.
In the short-term, this will actually increase your anxiety and you will feel worse at first. That’s okay, remember, this is a long-term solution, not a short-term solution. You will feel worse because you are no longer doing the behavior that has been partially decreasing your anxiety whenever the thought pops up.
But by doing this, you allow exposure to uncertainty to take place and your brain will eventually learn that uncertainty is not dangerous.
You will then reach the point where uncertainty is no longer a trigger for anxiety and the worry process loses its purpose. That is how worry stops and anxiety gets better. It is hard to do, but it really does work.
Once they commit to following through on this, my clients are often shocked at how powerful and effective this simple idea really is. Believe it or not, if you try it, you will find the same thing for yourself.
Want to learn more about how to stop the worry cycle? Check out my self-help video series, How to Stop Overanalyzing, with over 3 hours of content covering the skills I teach to almost all of my clients in the first 5 therapy sessions.