Excessive worrying - why it happens and how you can stop it

Do you feel like you're overthinking every concern that pops into your head? If you are, then it surely feels completely impossible not to. But does it really have to be that way? In this article, we write a little about why it can be so difficult to stop worrying, and about some perspectives that can help you start the process of letting your worries take up less space.

Strong thoughts are not necessarily important thoughts

You might think that anxiety must always have a cause. That when you feel anxious, there is an important reason for it, and you need to find out in order to feel better. Or that when you get a worrying thought, there must be a reason why that particular thought appeared.

But if a thought induces anxiety doesn't necessarily mean that it's an important thought.

Restlessness and anxiety are not necessarily there for any reason other than you worrying. This applies to an even greater extent if you have an anxiety disorder. There are countless reasons why one negative thought simply flew out of existence yesterday, but today causes complete havoc in your head. However, if there was a clear reason for your anxiety, then chances are that you would already know what it was. It is therefore not surprising that many who suffer from an anxiety disorder often don't understand why they are so anxious. There seems to be a disconnect.

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‍Most worries only happen in your head

How many worries have you had that never materialized? They felt scary and important there and then. But did they actually happen? Chances are most did not. (And the ones that did happen you dealt with). Most of us waste an enormous amount of time worrying about (and preparing for) things that will never happen. By doing that you unnecessarily create work, anxiety, and drama in your head.

Anxiety and restlessness are normal feelings that pass on their own - they are not a cause for concern

It is important to realize that everyone feels anxious and restless from time to time. But one thing almost all who suffer from anxiety have in common is the excessive amount of attention they pay to unpleasant feelings. Why do I have this thought? What does it mean? And an all-time favorite: Should I explore every and all possible consequence this could have on my life? 

Considering how impactful some negative thoughts would be if they were ever to come true, it is understandable that some choose the strategy of preparing by exploring. One could say "I'm mentally preparing myself for all eventualities."

But when you do this, you are required to engage with the thought. You essentially materialize a thought into existence by acknowledging it as something real. That way something as harmless as a thought sneaks its way into your reality and becomes a force that exerts control over your life.

If you leave worry and anxiety alone it will pass - just like any other emotion.

But if you consistently start worrying every time you feel uneasy or anxious, the feelings will last longer, and appear more and more often, and seemingly for no reason.

Worrying causes anxiety

Have you ever had a dream that felt so real it surprised you? Most people have. We humans have the ability to create vivid imaginations. We can choose to play out scenarios in our heads at will, and we can even experience the resulting emotions as if this was the real thing. This is a useful ability in our everyday lives. But if your strategy of dealing with a negative thought is to dissect it to the bone, then the same useful mechanism will force you to play out all these dark scenarios over and over again. It's like having front row seats to the premiere of a new horror movie, written and directed by you.

So even though most worries only happen inside your head, your thoughts affect how you experience the world. When you worry a lot, you will feel like you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world - even if you have a pretty calm life. And when you experience the world as dangerous, it creates fertile ground for more unrest and more worries. It becomes a vicious circle.

You are training yourself to worry. You can become a master at imagining all kinds of things that could go wrong. And when you worry, you get scared. Because the brain is not always great at distinguishing between emotions resulting from what is happening inside your head and emotions resulting from what is actually happening .

Is understanding this bad cycle enough to solve the problem? For some, yes! Some are able to break the cycle simply by recognizing their negative thought processes and changing them. However this is not easy, and most people need professional help to recognize and eventually break these negative cycles. Later in this article we'll share some tips!

(pro-tip: The GAD Workshop is our 12-week program designed specifically to help you recover from anxiety by training you to recognize and break these negative cycles)

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But what if my worries become reality?

Yes. On some occasions, what you've been worried about actually happens. We have spoken to several people who have experienced this. But interestingly, most say that excessive worrying didn't help with avoiding or solving the situation.

Accepting and dealing with the consequences of a cancer diagnose was not made any easier by the fact that they had worried excessively as a preparation. They were no better prepared for the consequences of the illness and misfortune. Many feel they might as well stop thinking about the tragedy, and much rather do things other than thinking about their health problems. Like spending more time with their loved ones.

‍You can handle problems without worrying

Life is unpredictable. Most of us will experience things happening that we have not prepared for or worried about. And likely you have already experienced this in the past.

And you probably handled it just fine. It works out in a way. You'll figure it out.

The nice thing is that even if imaginary situations don't have boundaries, real situations do. Therefore, you usually know what you must do when you are in the middle of it. Would you have coped even better if you had worried beforehand? Probably not.

Ironically, worry can actually make it harder to deal with those problems. It is easier to think clearly, make complex decisions and be active when you were initially rested and calm, and not tired and full of anxiety.

How to stop worrying

In this article we have listed a number of tips that could help you stop worrying. You may have noticed that many of these tips are about the way we relate to our thoughts. In some ways we are training ourselves to focus too much on our worries - which often causes more harm than good.

You don't have to think about all concerns that come up. Although it may feel impossible, you can actually choose not to. And this is a statement backed by research. You are much more in control of how you respond to your thoughts than you probably think. And you are not at the mercy of whatever next tragedy pops up into your head to ruin your evening.  It just that some struggle to find ways to exert this control.

When noticing a negative thought you can test this by asking yourself "Do I really need to think further about this right now? Is there anything I can do to change the situation right here and now?" If the answer is no, then you can safely drop it.

But in some cases, when the answer is 'yes', then you can simply schedule a time where you dive into the thought. It's like making an appointment with your worries. Something like:

"Tonight from 7:00 PM to 7:20 PM I will explore these worries. And if by 7:20PM I still didn't find a solution I'll make a new appointment."

This way you can safely drop dealing with the thought on the spot and keep focussing on what is important in your everyday life.

(Spoiler alert: when it's 7PM and it's time to start diving into the worry, it might not feel as important as it did earlier in the day. And sometimes you feel like you can drop it altogether :-)

This is an example of a practical strategy you use to let anxiety take up less space in your head. And there are lot more that we will share in future articles. Also as a subscriber to our email list you'll receive exclusive content, and invitations to our live webinars.

I hope that this article gave you more insight into how the worry and anxiety spirals can be stopped. If you have any questions we'd love to hear from you. And remember: not all worries deserve your time!

Want to learn more?

If you liked this article and want to learn more then consider downloading our free PDF '3 steps to less worry and anxiety' where we present our favorite strategies on how to reduce anxiety.

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