Worrying can be helpful. It propels us into action and prevents procrastination. Even more importantly, it protects us from potential perils. But, of course, too much worrying is problematic. Too much worrying boosts stress and leads to anxiety.
But you're not powerless over your worry-filled mind. There are many ways you can retrain your brain to reduce your worrying ways.
Below, Kathryn Tristan shares several suggestions. Tristan is a researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming book Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living (available December 4, 2012).
Q: In your book Why Worry? you share how readers can retrain their brains to overcome worry and anxiety. Can you talk about some of these strategies?
A: I believe that worry is part of a psychological immune system that tries to alert, warn and protect us from possible dangers. For the past 30 years, I've studied how our biological immune system protects us with lightning-like ferocity from possible infections from bugs (bacteria), viruses, or anything it perceives as foreign and thus threatening.
When it overreacts, the biological immune system can have devastating consequences such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, among others. So, too, our psychological immune system can go haywire when we overreact to its defenses.
One of the first ways to rewire this system is to eliminate the energy-draining habit I call terribilizing. Instead of envisioning the worst possible (terrible) catastrophe, focus on alternatives that emphasize positive possibilities. I call this possibilizing. As you rewire this psychological circuit, you emphasize "what if I can" instead of "what if I can't."
You can also rewire your brain by redefining your concept of perfection. Most of us would love to live in a perfect world where life is always fair, all people love you, good things happen and bad things do not. Unfortunately, real world always clashes with perfect world.
By learning to ride out the bumps of life, we commit to using all of our experiences as stepping-stones to a more powerful and loving life. Indeed, there is a Japanese philosophy known as wabi-sabi that describes beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It honors all things scratched, dented or worn. Based on Buddhist principles, this view suggests there is beauty in imperfection.
Another powerful way to rewire our brains is learning to cultivate an inner template for recognizing, resolving, and moving beyond negative mental baggage loaded with blame, anger, and guilt. These powerful emotions amplify worry.
The antidote to blame is gratitude. Adopting an attitude of gratitude replaces faultfinding negativity that only seeds stress and worry.
Another powerful emotion is anger. Whether it explodes outwardly or inwardly, the antidote to anger is cultivating a calm ability to communicate clearly. Learning to productively express emotions prevents them from ramping out of control.
Finally, although guilt can be a useful way of judging our behavior, guilt can also be used as a tool to control someone in unhelpful ways. Although guilt is an emotion that weakens, the antidote of forgiveness empowers. Instead of falling into the "shoulda-woulda-coulda" trap, you focus on being the one who has power, the power to forgive and go on.
Learn more about Tristan and her upcoming book at her website.