Four Ways to Worry Less This Year

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Everybody has worries. In early 2023, according to the market-research firm Ipsos, the five most common worries of people worldwide were inflation, poverty and social inequality, crime and violence, unemployment, and corruption (financial and political). Such surveys ask respondents to choose from a list of typical global problems. In that regard, they no doubt diverge from your personal worries, which might be even greater: a perceived change in your partner’s affections, perhaps, or your child’s rather mixed performance in school, or that sore spot on the back of your leg.

Although worrying a bit is normal, for some people, worrying can be a dominant element of a generalized anxiety that steals their peace and sucks up valuable time. “I have been worrying and fretting myself, and I don’t know what I am doing,” says Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. “Yesterday and the day before yesterday and all this time I have been worrying myself.” If you too are a chronic worrier, this will ring familiar.

Your loved ones have probably offered you all kinds of true but unhelpful advice, such as “Worrying won’t help”—as if that insight would make you slap your forehead and become worry free. Maybe you have at times despaired that this condition of anxiety is simply your lot in life. But the cause is not lost: With some knowledge and a bit of practice, you can make 2024 a far less worrisome—and thus happier—year.

Worrying is a recursive mental attempt to resolve a situation that has an uncertain, possibly negative outcome. As a mental operation, it is similar to rumination in that both are repetitive and self-focused, and feature an inability to shift attention from negative thoughts. Both activities also harm attention, erode problem-solving, and worsen mood. The distinction between them is that rumination typically involves brooding on trouble in the past, whereas worry usually focuses on events that, to your knowledge, have not yet occurred. You ruminate on a bad conversation you had yesterday; you worry about the conversation you need to have tomorrow.

A number of psychological theories have been advanced to explain chronic worry. One of the most prominent is called the avoidance model, which explains how worry can become obsessive and intrusive in our lives. This model argues that inveterate worriers replace thoughts of clear outcomes of problems, especially potentially catastrophic ones, with a hazy sense of negativity that’s harder to act upon. In support of this idea, subsequent research has shown that when people prone to worry are shown negative images, the parts of the brain normally associated with processing stimuli—the parietal cortex and the insula—are relatively disengaged. In other words, worrying seems to mute the vividness of our mental picture, interfering with some of the pathways that could help us devise real solutions.

Second, the avoidance model suggests that worriers hold a belief that if they think enough about a threat, they will manage to avoid it. Research has revealed that worriers believe that their worrying will help them learn how to handle a situation better or increase their control of it. This conviction also contains an element of superstition, as if worrying per se could somehow ward off negative events and prevent them from occurring. For some people, therefore, worrying is like wearing a pair of lucky socks or carrying around a rabbit’s foot. This is similar to the belief that you can “jinx” something by talking about it, and equally inefficacious.

Some evidence suggests that chronic worrying actually has a genetic component. The so-called worrier/warrior gene determines how well catecholamines—neurotransmitters and hormones released into the body in response to stress—are broken down. Worriers have a gene variant that allows them, researchers presume, to process excess dopamine efficiently in areas of the brain associated with working memory. The warrior variant has a different genetic characteristic that may enable superior absorption of neurotransmitters in regions that handle negative information; a person with this variant seems better equipped to be calm under fire.

Chronic worriers tend to be people who deal poorly with uncertainty, who struggle with narrowed focus, are self-conscious, and have social anxiety. The good news is that, generally, the susceptibility to worry declines as we age. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, 37 percent of people in their 40s report experiencing worry “a lot of the day yesterday”; for people in their late 60s, this falls to 23 percent, and to 15 percent for nonagenarians and older. We know that people tend to become less neurotic as they age, but it is also possible that they simply have less to worry about at 90 than they did at 40. (All the more reason to look forward to getting old.)

A seeming exception to the downside is that worry is positively correlated with high performance—but only among people with unusual levels of ability. You might interpret this as evidence that worrying is good for top-notch performers, but much more probable in my view is that such people tend to be in extremely stressful situations anyway, which leads to a lot of apprehension—and, in fact, these talented individuals might do even better if they could control their worrying. For them, too, as for everyone, worry is terrible for well-being: It is linked to depression, it increases the perception of pain, and it’s associated with procrastination and perfectionism.

On top of everything else, worrying is not based in reality most of the time. As the stoic philosopher Seneca noted, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” His assertion bears up under empirical scrutiny. According to research from 2020 in the journal Behavior Therapy, 91 percent of the things studied participants worried about did not come to pass. This means that for every bad thing that happens, chronic worriers suffer for 10. If nothing else, this is a colossal waste of valuable time, and we should all find ways to avoid it.

Easier said than done. If you are a worrier, simply willing it away is something you have probably tried—unsuccessfully—many times. The science gives us a better strategy, based on worry’s component parts.

1. Write your worry down.
Anxiety, of which worry is a component, is essentially just unfocused fear. Without a true focus, fear is a phantasm that you will struggle to deal with adequately. Much better to focus the fear by articulating it to yourself. You can do this by making a list: When you are worried about a bunch of things, take a sheet of paper and write down the five that you’re most anxious about. This is an effective metacognitive technique—as I’ve written before, thinking about thinking—that defines and puts limits around the sources of your discomfort. Naming them in a list makes them emotionally manageable.

2. Focus on outcomes, not problems.
Remember that worry generally focuses on problems but avoids actual outcomes. So you worry about an upcoming medical test but don’t admit to yourself what the “bad” outcome you fear actually is. If you could voice that fear, you would give yourself a chance to think about what you could actually do in that case. So, on your worry list, write down the best outcome for each problem, the worst outcome, and the most likely outcome. Then add what you would do in each instance. This makes the source of worry specific and gives you a management plan. With that, you’ll be able to park the problem mentally and experience relief from worry.

3. Fight your superstition.
Give up the magical thinking that if you torture yourself enough about some uncertainty, you will somehow improve the situation. Perseverative worry will not give you some unique insight, nor will you alter the universe through the power of your thoughts. This is what your loved ones mean when they tell you “Worrying won’t help.” Make this more helpful by telling yourself “My worrying will not change the course of events,” and use the social science outlined in this article to reinforce this rational resolve.

4. Seize the day.
Worry robs you of valuable time in your life. When you wake up in the morning, declare your intention to stop spending time this way. Here’s what I say: “I don’t know what this day will bring, but I am alive to experience it and will not waste it worrying about things I cannot control.” (Another good one is the Serenity Prayer.) Will you still worry some? Probably, but this statement of intent can set you on a better course. Research does in fact show that this type of mental exercise—which involves identifying specific alternate, goal-oriented behavior—promotes goal achievement.

One more point: Worriers often beat themselves up for their habit, as if worrying were a purely personal failing. One possible countermeasure for a chronic worrier is to ask yourself whether something or someone might be encouraging this in you for some gain of their own. Major economic interests, for example, reside in maintaining a worried population. In addition, activists, our political system, and news media foment anxiety to capture support, votes, or attention. That’s why doomscrolling—obsessively reading bad news—is good for business but bad for you.

The one profiting from your worry might be closer still. One of the hallmarks of a toxic relationship is one in which you are purposely and systematically made to feel anxious and fretful, making you more pliable and easier to manipulate.

No one is responsible for making your tendency to worry go away, but you in turn have no responsibility to give your support, votes, attention, or affection to someone who will use your anxiety to their advantage. If someone or something is prospering from your worries, 2024 might be the year to declare independence.

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