If you struggle with worry, you’ve probably asked yourself plenty of times: “Why can’t I just stop thinking about this?” Well in this post, I will explain why.
It’s a common scenario: a concern about the future randomly pops into your head one day. Without warning, this worry comes to dominate your thoughts. You can’t stop thinking about it even if you try.
Although you may know that your concern is irrational, that doesn’t seem to stop you from worrying about it. You might even seek reassurance from others that what you’re worrying about won’t come to fruition. While this may work briefly, the worry always returns.
You’re caught in the worry cycle.
It can be an incredibly frustrating, overwhelming, and even paralyzing experience. My clients who have this problem will often tell me that the anxiety seems untriggered and random or that they are just always anxious about pretty much anything.
While the anxiety you’re feeling may seem untriggered and random, there IS a clear trigger: uncertainty.
Worry is all about trying to resolve and eliminate uncertainty about the future.
But as you well know, the harder you try to fight uncertainty, the deeper into the worry cycle you progress.
Here’s how it works: your brain comes up with a worry question. Maybe it’s “What if I bomb my upcoming work presentation and lose my job?” Or “What if I fail my final exam?” You then feel an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about what is going to happen, which triggers anxiety.
So you figure “Ok, if I’m uncertain about this, then the logical thing to do is to analyze it. Then I can predict what might happen and come up with a solution so I’m ready for it. Then I can feel resolved about this and I won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
So to resolve the uncertainty, your brain switches to analysis mode.
This analysis can take many different forms. You might try to predict possible outcomes in your mind. You could try to reassure yourself why the thing you’re worried about will not happen. You could try to think more logically or positively about it to take a seemingly more rational view. You may spend hours doing online research. Or you may seek reassurance from friends and family members that everything will be okay.
Sometimes, these efforts DO work, but only in the short-term.
Sometimes, you will reach an answer that satisfies your brain temporarily, thus achieving a short-lasting resolution and a slight reduction in your anxiety level. But then you run into a problem: your brain says, “Well yeah, but what about this?” Your mind ALWAYS comes up with another reason to be uncertain.
So why are your efforts to stop this not working?
It all comes down to avoidance.
Anxiety gets maintained in the long-run by avoiding the things we are anxious about in the short-term (see this previous post for a more detailed explanation of this very important principle). Anxiety is a warning signal from our brain: it’s saying, “Stop! This thing is dangerous, do something!”
The way to decrease anxiety in response to any trigger is to teach your brain that the trigger is NOT dangerous and does not require the warning signal. The only way to do this is to directly confront and expose yourself to that trigger so that your brain learns it is not dangerous. This is the basis for Exposure Therapy, the most effective treatment for all types of anxiety.
Once your brain learns that it is not dangerous (which can only happen through directly experiencing it), it shuts off the warning signal because it is no longer needed. But when you avoid the trigger instead of allowing yourself to be exposed to it, you prevent this process from taking place, and the anxiety is maintained. That’s why avoidance in the short-term keeps anxiety going in the long-term.
ANYTHING you do when you are anxious to try to relieve the anxiety in the short-term GUARANTEES the anxiety will stick around in the long-run.
Let’s go through how this applies to the worry cycle:
With worry and generalized anxiety, the thing you are avoiding is feeling uncertain, and the way you are attempting to avoid it is by analyzing and seeking reassurance.
Right now, if you have a worry problem, your brain gives you anxiety as a warning signal when you encounter uncertainty. You then attempt to avoid this anxiety in the short-term by analyzing or seeking reassurance to reduce the uncertainty. Sometimes this is successful and you do make yourself feel better, so your brain never learns that uncertainty is NOT dangerous and does not require a warning signal. Therefore, the analysis and reassurance-seeking keep the anxiety going.
Even worse, worry questions CAN’T be answered!
It is impossible to know the future, so certainty can never be achieved. This means that all that effort spent trying to analyze, predict, and plan is utterly pointless…you’re trying to answer a question that is literally impossible to answer.
So how do you break out of the worry cycle? That will be the subject of my next post, but I’ll give you the quick and dirty answer now:
Simply put, you stop trying to answer the worry question.
You leave it unresolved.
Allow the uncertainty to be there. Don’t research the question online. Don’t ask your friends and family whether everything will be okay.
Eventually, you will get used to uncertainty and your anxiety will dissipate naturally. Over time, you will get used to uncertainty in general and worry less overall. This answer might sound a bit confusing and maybe even crazy right now, but stay tuned for my next blog post, when I will explain the solution in more detail.
Want to learn more about how to stop overanalyzing, worry, and anxiety? Check out my self-help video series, How to Stop Overanalyzing, with over 3 hours of content covering the skills I teach to almost all of my clients in the first 5 therapy sessions.