Will that check clear in time to pay my Verizon bill? Will this plane get me to my destination safely? Was that brie in the fridge with the date I couldn’t make out really ok to eat?
We all worry about the “stuff” of our daily lives from time to time.
Most of it is innocent enough, but sometimes our worries go beyond the fleeting concerns that pass through our thoughts, and morph into a more debilitating type of worry – called “perseveration” worry. Where we get stuck in a worry loop, and like a broken record, can’t stop worrying even as it makes us feel increasingly stressed and anxious.
As can happen sometimes in the days (or weeks) before a big performance or audition, for instance. When we are plagued by thoughts like – What if I screw this up? What if I have a memory slip? What if my bow starts shaking and I can’t control it? What if I embarrass myself and stop getting asked to sub with this orchestra?
Some of us are more prone to worrying than others, of course. And some of us have a more difficult time stopping our worries too, once the vortex of doom sucks us in.
Why is it so hard to stop this kind of worry? Is there anything we can do to nip it in the bud? Or is worrying, while unpleasant, perhaps not such a bad thing?
A pair of researchers did a review of the literature to get closer to a “unified theory of worry” (no, they didn’t actually call it that; I just think everything sounds cooler when preceded by the phrase “unified theory of…”).
And it turns out, there are certain factors that tend to spark “worry loops” and a different set of factors that keep the worries going. With a better understanding of these ingredients, maybe we can find ways to stop these downward spirals before they build up too much momentum?
Why worry loops happen (i.e. worry “triggers”)
Worriers tend to be more highly attuned to threats around them. It’s like their “radar” for threats is turned up to 11. So they tend to see more signs of bad things to come, that non-worriers don’t pick up on.
Like noticing all of the times the conductor seems to glance in your direction with a disapproving sort of look – but failing to notice the times when they nod or smile approvingly.
Over time, this attentional bias starts to skew our view of the world (or ensemble), making it feel like a scarier place than perhaps it really is. After all, we are noticing all the ways in which the world is threatening, and few of the ways in which the world is a welcoming, supportive, and inspiring place to be.
Lots of what we experience on a day to day basis is pretty ambiguous. Let’s say someone hasn’t replied to your email for a couple days. Does it mean you offended them somehow? Or maybe they’re just busy and haven’t had time to respond? It’s impossible to know, but worriers tend to interpret such ambiguous events in a way that amplifies the threat. Which of course makes it difficult not to fret and worry.
Why worry loops are hard to stop (i.e. worry maintenance)
We know that worrying often has the effect of putting us in a sour mood, but there is evidence that it works the other way too. That being in a negative mood also tends to bring on worry loops.
Furthermore, being in a negative mood has this weird effect of making us become more perfectionistic about our worrying. Where we start feeling the need to worry until we’ve come up with every possible solution to every potential threat, or until we’ve sorted through the worry so effectively that we feel better. But rarely (if ever?) does worrying make us feel better, so we end up digging the hole deeper and deeper, making it even harder to break the cycle.
Similarly, we sometimes internalize unhelpful beliefs or “rules” about worry. Like the idea that worrying will prevent something bad from happening (or at least make it less likely that the bad thing will happen). Or that if we worry about something bad happening, we’ll be prepared for it.
There is certainly something to be said for contingency planning and trying to problem-solve in advance of situations that are likely to pose challenges. Worry that’s geared towards productive action in this way can be useful. But that’s very different than dwelling on a situation that causes us anxiety, replaying it over and over in our heads, accompanied by an endless string of unanswerable heartburn-inducing “what if’s.”
So we’ve identified two reasons why worry loops happen, and two reasons why worry loops can be difficult to stop (aside from the most obvious one of not being adequately prepared, of course!). How can we use this knowledge to stop or reduce our runaway worries? There may not be a single foolproof solution, but here are 4 strategies that research suggests can help.
1. Engage in mood-enhancing activities.
Worry loops can strike us when we’re in a negative mood. Which doesn’t mean that we should aim to be radiating gleeful joyousness 24/7. But there is a paradoxical tendency, when we’re down, to do things that actually deepen our negative mood.
For instance, if we’re feeling discouraged after a bad practice day or run-through and are starting to question whether we have what it takes to win an audition, it’s easy to want to plop down on the couch with a box of ice cream sandwiches and binge-watch something on Netflix. And that will feel pretty dandy in the short-term, but be less likely to lift our mood than going for a run, seeing a friend, or taking up a new hobby like archery tag kart(?!).
2. Use the “feel like continuing” stop rule
This is going to sound ridiculously simple, but when you find yourself in a worry loop, take a moment to pause and ask yourself if you’d like to continue worrying or not. Chances are, you’ll find it easier to stop the cycle and move on. By default, we tend to use what psychologists call the “as many as can” stop rule, where we mindlessly stay in the worry loop until we feel better (which almost never happens).
3. Cognitive defusion
This sounds counterintuitive, so you may want to read more about it here (@bulletproof), here (@Huffington Post), or here (related to sport), but it’s often the case that stepping back a bit to observe our inner voice, and to recognize that these are just thoughts – not reality – can help us move on more quickly and avoid getting trapped in a loop.
4. Parking your worries
This strategy will sound a little backwards too, but scheduling dedicated worry time is a classic psychologist worry hack, that studies suggest can help keep worries from popping into our thoughts. Read more about this here (@bulletproof).