The human mind has a nearly unlimited capacity to generate worries. Worry fuels anxiety, which can then cause even more worry in an endless cycle. A lot of times when people have trouble sleeping, it’s because of an overactive mind. They lie awake at night thinking about everything they have to get done, remembering what didn’t go well, and/or worrying about what might go wrong in the future. Worrying gives them a sense that they’re doing something about a potentially dangerous situation and can sometimes even convince them that the reason things haven’t gotten a whole lot worse is that they’ve had the good sense to worry about it.
Many people are aware, of course, that worrying, ruminating, or overthinking doesn’t help them and in fact makes things a good deal worse, but this doesn’t mean that they know what to do about it. Their brains, it seems, did not come with an “Off” switch like everybody else’s. This is a great example of the truth that, in many situations, knowledge alone is not enough. It’s a great first step, but knowing that our minds are overactive doesn’t mean that we can shut them off; in order to rest well, we’ll need to develop our ability to interrupt the cycle of worry and anxiety.
How can we do this? Through practice. Just like any other capacity, we have to get out there and do it, over and over, until we gain some skill at it. When I work with a client who has a habit of worrying, I find ways for them to practice becoming more mindful of their thoughts. Often this involves some sort of meditation, a practice through which we notice our thoughts and feelings and practice observing them rather than getting carried away by them. When we focus our attention on our breath, for example, we find that we are interrupted hundreds, if not thousands of times by lots of different thoughts vying for our attention. In meditation, we practice noticing the thoughts, naming them, and then returning our attention to the breath.
When we pay attention to a worry and follow its logic down a dark and twisted path, it begins to feel more and more real. When we simply notice it for what it is and recognize it as the product of an overactive mind, we realize that it is just as much an invention as the tabloid news we read while standing in line at the supermarket. (One of my favorite sayings is: “Don’t believe everything you think.”) When treated with this kind of mindfulness, worries stop running our minds and our lives and become mere suggestions from an overly anxious part of ourselves that dissipate like smoke when we recognize them for what they are. They become simply a reminder that something important to us is at stake and some part of ourselves perhaps needs reassuring that we’ve made it this far successfully and can find our way through whatever future challenges we’re faced with.
If my clients need a little bit more help with their worrying, then I sometimes give them a practice called “Worry Time.” While we don’t want to treat our worries as if they are the word of God, we also don’t want to ignore any important messages they may contain. Worry Time reassures the anxious part of ourselves that we’re taking its concerns seriously and gives us a time and place to worry so the habit doesn’t leak out into every other moment of our lives.
To practice Worry Time, first set up a time every day that you can dedicate 30 minutes to worrying (you can do less if you like). When Worry Time arrives, sit down with a pen and a bunch of index cards. Write down each worry you have on its own index card until you can’t think of any more (you can add more throughout the day as they occur to you). Then go through and make a plan to address each one. If there’s nothing you can do, or it’s out of your control, write something like, “I’m aware of the issue and have done everything I can to address it. There’s nothing more I can do at this point.”
When your 30 minutes is up, make yourself stop (using a timer can be helpful here). That’s the most important part of Worry Time. If more worries come up after Worry Time is over, then write them down and know you’ll come back to them tomorrow. Then turn your attention to something else. This becomes another way to practice noticing worries and setting them aside.
Eventually, if you practice enough, you can learn to disengage from your thoughts (the closest thing there is to flipping the “Off” switch). Skills, after all, are similar to muscles: they get stronger each time you use them.
If you find that some worries are too powerful or persistent to let go of, then it’s worth examining the beliefs that lie beneath them. People who have trouble sleeping often begin to worry that they won’t be able to sleep at night or feel anxious at the thought of going to bed. If you ever experience this, then read the next post in the series to learn how our beliefs about sleep can keep us awake.
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