We all have worried thoughts at times. When worried thoughts persist and are frequent or intense they contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress and other conditions that influence our mental health. Whether or not a person has a mental health diagnosis, we can get caught in unhelpful thinking patterns, overthinking, and negativity.
Our brains are set up to try to solve problems. They observe, analyse, evaluate and look for ways to overcome difficulties. However, worrying is different to problem solving. Worry tends to be unproductive, repetitive (dwelling), and can increase negative mood states such as anxiety or stress. Worry is usually also coloured by unhelpful thinking patterns that we are prone to under stress or emotional distress.
There are a number of commonly held misperceptions about worry. These include:
- Worrying is uncontrollable, dangerous, or will lead to a loss of control (e.g. that it will cause a “breakdown”).
Fact: There are a range of effective interventions to reduce worried thoughts and manage any associated symptoms (e.g. feelings of anxiety).
- Worrying helps me to plan ahead in case something bad happens/it prepares me for the worst.
Fact: Planning – and organising and problem solving – are different to worrying. These are focused, productive, and proactive, whereas worry is unproductive, repetitive, and unhelpful.
- Worrying prevents bad things from happening.
Fact: Worrying doesn’t prevent disaster or prepare us to deal with difficult situations. Instead, it usually leads to dwelling on problems or scenarios that often don’t eventuate, rather than building our resilience or assisting us to be prepared for challenges.
- Worrying motivates me to get things done.
Fact: Worry, self-criticism, negativity or dwelling on thoughts leads to negative emotions. Rather than generating motivation, it tends to demotivate, create unhelpful cycles of rumination, and/or lead to avoidance behaviours.
Fortunately, there are some things that we can do to to reduce worry. A range of interventions have been found to be helpful. These include:
Identifying your unhelpful thinking patterns.
Such patterns can include:
- Overgeneralisation – coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or a single piece of evidence.
- Black & White Thinking / All or Nothing Thinking – Seeing people, situations, or things as one way or another, with no middle ground. This is a polarised view, with no “shades of grey”.
- Filtering – Noticing the negative, while dismissing or filtering out the positive or more realistic aspects of situations.
- Catastrophising – Believing or expecting that the worst possible thing will happen; Magnifying how badly things are likely to turn out.
- Jumping to Conclusions – making premature judgements about events, situations, ourselves, or others with little or no evidence, or without reasonable evaluation of what’s actually happening.
- Emotional Reasoning – Automatically believing that what we feel must be true. If one feels stupid, then they assume that means they must be stupid. Assuming that emotions reflect the way that things are, e.g. “I feel like a failure, so it must be true”.
- “Shoulds” and “Musts” – Mental rules or perceptions that things have to be a certain way. This leads to unrealistic expectations or pressure being put on oneself or others.
- Mind Reading – Assuming that we know what others are thinking (usually about us).
- Compare and Despair – Seeing only the good and positive aspects of others, and comparing ourselves negatively to them.
- Personalisation – Distorted beliefs that what others say and do is a type of direct, personal reaction to oneself.
- Prediction – believing that we know what will happen in the future.
You can implement strategies to reduce worries and unhelpful thinking patterns such as:
- Identify if you’re brain is engaging in helpful or productive planning/organising, or whether it is simply engaging in overthinking, dwelling, worrying, or unhelpful thinking patterns such as those listed above.
- Identify if there are particular triggers for increasing worried thoughts and address worry early.
- Problem solving: find solutions and implement them, where practical to do so.
- Thought challenging:
- Identify the unhelpful thought/thought pattern (e.g. catastrophising, overgeneralisation).
- Challenge those thoughts by asking yourself questions such as:
- Is there evidence that contradicts this thought?
- What are the costs and benefits of thinking this way?
- Am I taking all the information into account?
- What are some alternative explanations for this?
- Does this behaviour or situation reflect how things always are?
- What are the facts and what are my interpretations?
- What would someone else say about this situation?
- How much will this matter in 6 months?
- Thought labelling: Take some time out to notice what your thoughts are. Label each thought as “helpful”, “unhelpful”, or “neutral”. Continue doing this for a couple of minutes and see what happens. Don’t worry about how accurate the label is, or if there are a lot of unhelpful thoughts, simply label each thought. Alternatively, use the labels “thought”, “image”, or “sensation”.
- Defuse thought(s): We can automatically take on worried thoughts as fact, seeing them as serious and important: that is, we can become “fused” with them. But worried thoughts are usually inaccurate and, at the very least, unhelpful and unpleasant. Try “defusing” them – choose a particularly worrisome thought and simply sing it to a familiar tune (e.g. try singing it to the tune of the Happy Birthday song), or repeating it for a minute or so in a funny voice or accent (perhaps think how Bart Simpson or another cartoon character might sound saying the thought).
- Postpone worry: Create a worry period – choose a time, place and duration for worry each day (e.g. 6pm, in the home office, for 15 minutes). When you find yourself worrying at other times through the day or night, remind yourself that you will have time to think about it later (during the worry period) when you can focus on dealing with it, then focus on other things until the worry period arrives. Stick to the allocated time period when the worry period arrives.
- Accept uncertainty: There are going to be times and situations in everyone’s life that bring uncertainty. Worrying doesn’t change uncertainty or unpredictability. Accepting that this will happen and reminding yourself that you can deal with things, if or when they occur, can reduce worry. You have internal and external resources such as resilience, problem-solving skills, support from other people etc, that you can use to deal with unexpected situations if they arise.
- Watch what you say to yourself: Instead of thoughts like “I should/shouldn’t…” or “I must/mustn’t…” use more flexible language in your self-talk, such as “I could…”, “I can”, “I get to…”, or “Instead of doing X, I could …”.
- Mindfulness or meditation: mindfulness can help reduce the time we spend focusing on unhelpful thoughts, which are often focused on the future, or the past. Ground yourself by purposefully taking some time to be more present: for example, notice what you can see or feel or hear (or all three). There are also some useful apps that can guide you through some mindfulness or meditation exercises (some are listed further down).
- Distraction: Go and do something to keep yourself occupied, that takes some concentration and attention, and/or that you enjoy. This might be going for a walk, playing with your pet, talking to others (about things other than your worries), playing a game, engaging in a hobby, listening to music, doing some housework, reading, etc.
- Relaxation training and breathing exercises: When we are stressed or emotional we are more vulnerable to unhelpful thinking or worrying. Use stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. Reducing stress and increasing relaxation in the body can decrease unhelpful or worried thoughts.
- Identify affirmations or more realistic or positive thoughts or perspectives that remind you to focus on the an alternative perspective to the worries.
- Pleasant activities: Regularly do something enjoyable that helps you to relax and increases your sense of contentment and enjoyment. This will vary for different people, but things like socialising, pampering yourself, having a bath, or cooking and eating a nice meal, can be helpful.
- Exercise: Exercise improves both our physical and mental health. It can clear our heads when we are getting caught up in unhelpful thinking patterns, reduce the production of stress chemicals, and generate feel good chemicals (endorphins).
Useful Mindfulness or Meditation Apps
Apps can be useful to reduce worried thoughts. To get started, here is a list of mindfulness or meditation apps that you may wish to consider trying:
- Smiling Mind
- MyLife Meditation (previously Stop, Breathe & Think)
- Self Help for Anxiety Management (SAM)
- Happify: For Stress & Worry
- What’s Up?
- Medito (for meditation and sleep)
Our clinicians at The Hummingbird Centre are skilled and experienced in assisting people to address worried thinking, overthinking, anxiety, depression, and other difficulties or disorders.