From ‘alarm’ to ‘calm’. Using your imagination to stop worrying and start living.

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of it’s strength.”
Corrie Ten Boom

When we experience excess worry, we operate in a heightened state of stress. The more we worry, the more of the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ we produce, leading to increased anxiety, and in some instances becoming physically ill.

Worry is that uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomach, combined with mental obsession over a situation or problem. Both mind and body go into over-drive thinking about ‘what might happen’. It’s also our subconscious stepping in, believing that if we ‘worry enough’, we can control the outcome of an event, or prevent something negative from occurring.

Clearly this isn’t true, and on some level we know rationally that worrying doesn’t really control anything. So what exactly is going on here? Believe it or not, it’s our imagination at work, or rather a misuse of the imagination. You see our imagination is also not true, and our thoughts are not real. They are simply the pictures we have in your heads and the words we use to describe something. So worry therefore is being scared of a thought, not a reality.

If I told you to imagine a purple pony sitting next to you, it may become very vivid in your imagination, but it will never be real. Real is what we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. So the antidote to worry is not positive thinking, it’s accurate thinking. It’s interrupting our imagination and challenging its authenticity. So next time you’re being dragged down the rabbit hole of worry, play a game of ‘truth or lie’ with your imagination and call it out when fiction takes over from fact.

This might be easier said than done, so following are a few more strategies to move you from ‘alarm’ to ‘calm’.

  1. Don’t take ownership of ‘worry’.

Language is really important in changing your perspective on worry. Avoid referring to yourself as a ‘worrier’ and taking ownership of the condition. When we own something we build it into our DNA and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, you might say ‘I feel concerned about xyz’, because a feeling is something we can let go of. ‘I feel’ versus ‘I am‘ is important in describing anything that you would rather be free of.

2. Observe ‘worry’ as something separate from you.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of the unhelpful advice ‘try not to think about it’, which of course does little to calm us down or alleviate our fears. However, we can chose to observe our worries ‘over there’ or ‘somewhere in the distance’, as opposed to within us. This strategy is about being able to feel relaxed within yourself, by acknowledging that a situation or problem is external to your being. This can help take the emotion out of the worry, and by default release its power over you.

3. Allocate ‘worry’ time.

It might sound counterintuitive to recommend a system for ‘worrying’, but strangely this is a very effective strategy. Worry by its very nature can sneak upon us at any time of the day or night, and is pervasively intrusive. Not knowing when or how it’s going to present itself only intensifies the anxiety. So, allocating a time to worry is an excellent way to prevent the element of surprise and keep it from consistently interrupting your day. Defer worry to a particular time of day and give it no more than 20 minutes of your attention. Then, when a worrying thought occurs you simply put it to the side and say “I’ll deal with that in worry time”. You will be surprised how quickly things flip, and when you must worry for 20 minutes, it will get harder and harder to do.

4. Get it on paper.

The simple act of writing about an emotional issue immediately reduces the stress associated with it. This is because writing engages the rational part the brain and gives the it time to ‘act’ rather than ‘react’ to a situation or problem. The easiest way to do this is:

  • Simply list your worries out. Once listed you can then separate them into two columns.
  • Column 1 are those that you can do something about (things you have the power to influence) and Column 2 are those you are currently powerless to change (things over which you have no control).
  • Go back to column 1 and identify some simple steps you could take to impact the situation. This will expand your influence over the situation and empower you to make positive changes.
  • Finally go back to column 2 and rather than strategise about what you can do, instead think about how you would need to ‘feel‘ about this situation in order to resolve the worry that has become attached to it. You may not be able to change the outcome but you can change your perspective.

At the end of the day a little ‘worrying’ is ok, and is simply a signal from our brain that lets us know something is out of alignment. The goal is to receive the message without being enslaved by the content.