Many people are prone to worry and stress. Worrying interrupts the ability to focus on present tasks and hijacks the mind to make people fixate on what is not working and potential future problems. In fact, it often feels like worrying has all the power-- even when we want to stop worrying, we can't. This significantly reduces our sense of happiness and quality of life because it disconnects us from what is working and positive. Because the attention of the worrier is habituated to focusing on problems, these individuals often report things are worse than they actually are.
Worrying is on the rise. A survey showed that from 2017 to 2018 worrying rose 5% in the US population. And it is expensive. Stress costs the US economy $300 billion a year in absenteeism and sickness. Every day, one million workers are absent from work due to stress related issues. 80% of workers feel job stress, and 40% of them say their jobs are extremely stressful. Besides work, the main topics people worry about are health, safety, politics, relationships, and finance.
Surveys about the specifics of what Americans worry about show these five topics are interconnected. For example, people worry that political decisions will risk their safety and they associate concerns about their health with fears of not being able to pay medical bills. These topics of stress help explain why the top ten countries on the UN's World Happiness Report for 2019 are places where citizens have social safety nets, such as health insurance.
How do people stop worrying? The good news is that there have been a number of developments in understanding the brain's role, and studies show which health and wellness techniques effectively address how to combat stress. Read Frank's story to see how he intervened to help manage his worrying. Later on in this article, learn five brain training strategies to reduce worrying.
Is Worrying a mind or brain problem?
The mental health field has come a long way in understanding of the brain and how brain functioning produces negative thoughts and worry. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, leading expert on stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dr. Van Der Kolk, gives an excellent overview of the medical and mental health developments of the last four decades that have helped us in understanding stress and the brain's role in worrying. He spends the second half of the book reviewing body and brain training strategies that work to combat stress.
Forty years ago, doctors approached excessive worrying and susceptibility to stress as ‘mind’ problems, meaning they were treated as mostly psychological. Thanks to medical and technological advances in brain imaging, we now understand that these are actually brain problems too.
Why are negative thought patterns created and maintained? Part of the answer comes from understanding the role of neural pathways, which are the information highways of the brain. The more a person thinks negative thoughts, the stronger those pathways become. This habituation creates a perpetual circle, where our thoughts create pathways and those pathways create more of the same thoughts. Fortunately, the brain is plastic and can re-wire itself!
Why do we worry and How to stop worrying?
Worriers have overactive nervous systems. Their survival instincts, also referred to as flight, fight or freeze, are always in go-mode. These brains are habitually trained to be on the lookout for danger. This may make for success in certain professions, but it comes at a high cost for health and happiness.
We all know that we are ‘creatures of habit’. What this means neurologically is that the brain is prone to habituated rather than fresh responses. The brain always tries to be the most efficient and effective in its use of energy because its ultimate goal is to protect and maintain the body's health and safety. The flaw in this design is that the brain becomes efficient by using cues to approximate the present situation and then uses an old response pattern. This leads to misperceptions of the present moment and sub-optimal responses. We have all seen someone “lose it” and respond with an angry outburst, when in reality the situation warranted a different approach.
A dramatic and sad illustration of this principle is the war vet who comes home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after his years of service. As a soldier, he has been trained to respond to danger with a ‘fight’ response. But now he is home from the war and is walking down his hometown street when a car backfires. The brain is habituated to “loud sound equals danger” and the vet’s brain goes into fight mode—he yells, pushes someone or becomes highly irritable and later starts a fight with a loved one.
An important piece of information to know: the part of the brain that operates the fight and flight response does not take orders from anyone. It is a part of the brain that needs to be able to respond in milliseconds, so it doesn’t take in information from more rational and analytical parts of the brain, such as the pre-frontal cortex . As a result, you could say to yourself, “I really shouldn’t get angry and fly off the handle.” But the part of the brain that makes decisions when we are angry acts without input from our rational, willful self. It takes in sensory input and then makes a snap decision.
Does everyone worry?
If someone is prone to angry outbursts or worrying, then chances are the brains is habituated to the flight/flight response. For whatever reason, and there could be many, that individual experienced a threat or threats at some point in their lives that were perceived as a danger to his safety. And if that happens enough, a habit gets set in place. These habits are often reflected both in thought and nervous system reactions.
A quick way to find out if you are a worrier is to ask yourself this question, and answer quickly without thinking: Is the world a safe place? If the answer is ‘no’ then chances are your brain is habituated to thinking that you are in danger when you aren’t. The up side is that this habit makes you a perfect candidate for work where you always have to be thinking about what the risks are in any situation, such as a lawyer, an ENT, or an emergency room doctor. Your brain is habituated to perceive risk. The down side is that these habits might weigh negatively in your personal relationships or make it difficult for you to relax.
The worrying Warrior: Frank's story
Frank's story is a good example of what people can achieve when they re-train habitual worry responses.
Last year, he walked into my neurofeedback center and said to me:
“I was in therapy for 15 years, know my ‘issues’ inside and out, but my worrying still gets the best of me. It’s like my baseline is off. I’m always hyper-vigilant—looking out for the next danger and working very hard to stay on top of everything. It’s great for being a lawyer, but when I get into bed at night my mind is racing and I feel this sinking feeling. Even after all this therapy. What can you do for me?”
Frank didn't have a motivation problem, or a lack of insight. Frank had a brain habit problem.
Frank sought our services after having researched the benefits of neurofeedback for stress and worry. I see clients like Frank everyday, and I call them my “Worrier Warriors”. They respond very well to brain training strategies that help them reset that worry response.
Brain training with neurofeedback was Frank's first choice for shifting his worried thoughts. Neurofeedback helped him manage his sleep, and after his tenth session, he came in and reported, "Natalie, I actually forgot to worry all last night. It wasn't until the morning that I realized I had spent a lovely evening with friends without being distracted by my mind." That was a huge step for a person who felt he could never relax!
When he finished his series of neurofeedback sessions in New York he told me, "My problems are the same but I worry less about them."
5 Brain Training Tools to stop worrying
A common error people make when trying to stop their worrying mind is to think that there is one strategy that works best, and that if they could only figure out that one strategy, then the problem would be fixed. In reality, the right mindset to have when trying to manage worry is to have a multi-pronged approach and to give yourself enough time for change to happen and become habit. Usually, when a strategy doesn't work, it is because we don't give it enough time to become part of our routines. Start with a brain training tool that seems doable, then slowly add to it.
The breath: slow and deep breathing are ways we can “tell” the brain that we are safe and it can go into a state of regulation and relaxation. Slow, deep breathing for 5 minutes will do wonders to communicate to the brain to come out of flight/flight and into calm awareness (the state of a regulated and balanced brain.) Work your way up to counting to 5 on the inhalation and 5 on the exhalation. See also: Mindfulness Meditation – Does It Work?
Studies have shown that people praying to relieve stress in themselves is effective, but there is inconclusive data on whether prayer for the benefit of others' health relieves stress. There is enough research showing meditation lowers stress-related physical symptoms, such as heart rate and stress hormones levels, for it to be considered a top brain training technique.
2. Education: Understand Worrying and Changing Self-Talk
Help yourself by having a good and clear understanding that worrying is, in part, the brain over-reacting, and not an accurate assessment of the risks or needs of the present moment. It is as if your brain is reading a newspaper that is 20 years old and acting like it is the most current news. Repetition of present moment thinking is a key aspect of brain training. People who worry have a well-worn story or stories that loop. Understand that in order to reset that habit we have to introduce another repetitive practice: telling ourselves that the real reason we are worrying is because of habitual old, bad news. One great way to respond to worry is to describe in detail what is false about what the worry is saying. For example, "No, my life is actually not over. I'm not about to lose my job." Then replace these false notions with the truth: "What's actually happening is that my boss is unhappy with my performance on that project."
3. Get exercise
I recently had a neurologist tell me that if the positive effects of regular aerobic exercise--defined as increased heart rate 30 minutes five times a week--were a drug, it would be considered a “miracle drug” and would generate billions of dollars a year in revenue for some lucky pharmaceutical company.
A regular exercise regime doesn't have to be a big time commitment. For example, the HIIT program, high intensity interval training, is a time-efficient strategy to get the benefits typically associated with longer bouts of traditional cardio. One study showed that a 20 minutes HIIT workout showed the same benefits as a 50 minutes of lower-intensity cardiovascular exercise.
Sleep is one of the best ways to reset our mood and manage our schedule so that we have the energy and mental capacity to sustain a healthy lifestyle. If you need to be convinced of this, just watch children who did not get a good night's sleep and how they manage stressors.
As for the long term impact of poor sleep, studies now consistently show the detrimental effects of not sleeping enough—meaning 5 hours a night or less—on the development of chronic conditions. You may be managing alright now, but there is a toll on one's health over time. If your sleep hygiene is poor and you do things like using phones in bed, eating late, or watching dramatic programs late at night, then download our ebook for steps to improve your sleep hygiene.
Neurofeedback trains the brain to optimize its functioning and allows us to reset our worried habits. Through a series of training sessions, the brain learns to use the present moment to decide its next action, rather than using those old habitual response patterns. As a result, the trained brain sleeps better, is calmer, is better able to focus, and is more cheerful. And as Frank said, the same problems just don't worry us anymore.
How do we stop worrying? The first step is to understand that worrying does not bring benefit, and that if it is hard to stop worrying, that means our brain is stuck in a habitual loop. Remember that you can take charge and train your brain to worry less. Take an inventory of the areas of your lifestyle that most contribute to being stressed or worried and start with a single change for the better, such as 10 minutes of meditation a day. Once you take one action, you will be better equipped to add another.
Have realistic expectations and don't give up on yourself!