March 4, 2012 2:41 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop worrying all the damn time?

I'm a 26-year-old, reasonably healthy male. My life is not bad. Could be better, but no complaints. My problem is that I keep worrying all the time. About everything. Stuff that may have happened, stuff that will never ever happen, everything. For no apparent reason. Even if there is no real reason to be worried, various imaginary situations play themselves out in my head, even absurd ones. I get really stressed about everything—to the point of being paralysed—and I don't know what to do about it. I've always been a bit of a worrier, but it's getting much worse the older I get. Now it's even starting to affect my work. The only thing that can temporarily turn off the thoughts is watching TV shows or reading a good book, so I immerse myself in those things and neglect my work for days on end. Weeks, even. Of course, that's only temporary, so I'm flooded with guilt about not working and get more anxious about money, etc. But I don't know what I can do to stop worrying so much and being so anxious all the time. It feels like it's getting out of control. And for no reason. And I feel like I can't talk to anyone about this, because no one I know is as stressed out about stuff.

I'm just not sure what to do. Any help/suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
posted by murtagh to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Because I'm typically not a fan of laypeople giving psychiatric advice, I will preface this by saying this is NOT a diagnosis (a diagnosis would obviously require a full assessment by a mental health professional), but what you describe sounds somewhat like Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Regardless, if you are experiencing worry to the extent that it significantly affects your every day life, you really should consider seeking psychological assistance. Therapy and/or anxiolytics may help.

[I have a 4-year undergraduate psychology degree, but have never practised, and am nowhere near qualified to do so.]
posted by Defying Gravity at 3:09 AM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

In lieu of a shrink: My advide is to just stop worrying about worrying.

I used to worry about stupid shit like that, too. You seem to realize it's totally irrational. So did I. Just...stop doing it.

It's hard to do, I know. Just remember that those horrible outcomes in your head are not accurate depictions of reality. Failure is not bad. Stepping on a landmine is bad, worry about failure to not step on landmines.

I've screwed up at work before, big time. You admit you make a mistake and try not to make that mistake again. It sucks, you feel like an idiot, your boss and coworkers get to think they're smarter than you. It does not last long.

Failing is a necessary part of the human condition.
posted by my_nard at 3:43 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might find it worthwhile to step back and meditate on this from Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho (1983): “ All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
posted by Mister Bijou at 4:16 AM on March 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I know the feeling. What helped me most, particularly at work, was having a coworker who is a bit of a rock star but who will is open about making a lot of the mistakes I make / fear making -- and seeing that no one else's work is perfect either. And the world keeps turning anyway.
posted by bunderful at 4:26 AM on March 4, 2012

One thing an ex did that helped... when she worried about something, she'd write it down in a journal. Then, a week or a month, or however long later, she'd look at the journal and see she really was worrying for no reason. Do that enough, and maybe it'll help rationalize your worry a bit more.

Also, exercise - if you're not doing that already. Yoga is good, because you're forced to be in the yoga zone for an hour or however long, focusing on getting poses right, and not worrying about other things. I also find running helps with my general state of mind.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:15 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have access to a primary care doctor, please make an appointment and tell him/her what you've told us. The doc has heard this before and will be able to help you decide what might help.

I'm unqualified to diagnose anything, but please look at Defying Gravity's link. If what you see there clarifies and describes your experience, please take that information to your doctor too.

You deserve not to feel flooded by guilt and worry. Good luck, murtagh.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:31 AM on March 4, 2012

What I sometimes do is give myself some 'worry time'.

If something is causing me stress I will allow myself 10-15 minutes to do nothing but worry about it. Literally just sit and fume or, if i am in bed, lie there and fret for a little bit.

Outside of this time, if I feel the stress level rising I will say to myself: I have already worried about this in my 'worry time'. My stress is now compartmentalised, and I can then go about putting the world to right.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but you might be amazed at how effective it is. I was a constant worrier as a child, and this technique had a dramatic effect on how I manage stress.

This is especially true if you are 'worrying about worrying'. By having some 'worry time' you ameliorate this multiplier effect.

Good luck!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 5:36 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find it helps to view these thoughts as just my brain going though it's internal "preparing for disaster" process. Given that we can project into the future, it's quite normal that we might think "what if I'm walking to the shops to buy a paper, and suddenly a purple and green tiger leaps out of a doorway and attacks me?". The brain is trying to prepare us for that eventuality happening.

I think the key is to recognise that this is just a part of your brain doing its job. It doesn't mean anything. It's not going to make these things happen, or not happen. It's just like the part of your brain that handles the images that come in from your retinas doing its job, only more distracting.

Another thing I found helpful was to come up with a silly or funny resolution to the problem - the sparkly-white pelican riding on my shoulder will swell to 40 times its size and fight off the tiger. Being able to laugh at whatever was going on and then thanking my brain for coming up with a solution helped. Especially if I vividly imagined the pelican and the fighting, and the pelican owning it.

Also, maybe don' try to fight the thoughts off, or deny them. Let them play out, and then gently let them go. Another one will come along, but just lather, rinse and repeat. Eventually, your brain will catch on to the idea that you've got it, you're in control of the situation, and it doesn't need to waste its resources.

Another thing I found helpful was to do sudoku. I always did easy ones, because it seemed to give that part of my brain something to latch onto instead. Maybe try something that requires quick thinking and rapid reflexes, to "tire out" that part of your brain?

Finally, meditation really helps with this sort of thing, in my experience.
posted by Solomon at 5:36 AM on March 4, 2012

You should check out the book "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...and it's all Small Stuff" by Dr. Richard Carlson. Lots of great advice in short little vignettes that cut through the crap and give it to you rather simply. Helped me gain a lot of perspective by sorting out what matters and what really doesn't. It really was a huge help to me and helped me reduce my stress induced migraines.
posted by NoraCharles at 5:43 AM on March 4, 2012

My mom is a champion worrier. I bought her a package of hand-crafted "Worry People", which are apparently a folk tradition in Guatemala. They are little dolls an inch high. You tell them your worries and place them under your pillow at night, and while you sleep, they take them away. She has confessed to bringing them out during moments of extreme anxiety.

I used to be quite a worrier as well. It's served me well at times in that it makes me meticulous and competent at projects, but I could not relax and enjoy anything because I always had these what-if scenarios going on continually. What pulled me out of my anxiety was some friends who told me I worried too much. I thought about it and realized it was true. I tried to worry less -- like, hearing the voice that says 'what if X goes wrong', and responding 'it will be okay if that happens'. Sometimes it helped to imagine what the worst case scenario was, and imagine what I would do (what if we run out of gas! well, it will not be that hard to flag a car and get a ride to a gas station; I am capable of handling that. Therefore, things will be okay. What if we get lost! I am not in danger of dying and I might actually have a fun adventure. Therefore, things will be okay.). Usually X didn't go wrong and I was able to relax. If it did go wrong, things were okay; never as bad as I feared. Each time was like an experiment, to see if I would be okay if I tried not to worry, and I was. As time passed, I grew more and more confident that I did not need to worry. Eventually my anxiety faded almost completely.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:44 AM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am also prone to anxiety. I have worry time in a worry chair. I worry about it for 10 minutes and move on. If I find myself worrying again later, I must go back to the worry chair to worry. That's the only place I can worry. (I tend to worry lying in bed which males bed stressful and not sleepy.) It's a little silly but it works..

I also play Worst Case Scenario, where you take a specific worry out to its logically absurd end. This works best with things like, "was I a doofus when I asked her out? Well, the worst thing that could happen is she gets a reality show about dating doofuses, but I don't have to sign the release." Works well for interpersonal and life issues; not so well for existential angst about, say, nuclear Iran.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:14 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestions to see a doctor. This is what therapy is for.

I would also consider daily intense physical activity. For me, it's harder to worry when exhausted. Something absorbing or meditative, like running, biking, hiking, martial arts, dance, heavy weight lifting (so you have to really focus on good form), ashtanga yoga, rock climbing, or maybe a fast-paced team sport.

Meditation can also be very helpful. Take a look at the book The Mindful Way Through Depression, which discusses research on how meditation can help with worry (a common symptom of depression).
posted by medusa at 6:34 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Worrying is praying for things you don't want"

A therapist can definitely help. When you look at what a therapist actually does, they listen to you and give you their interpretation of what you have just said. Part of the goal is to learn the seperation of subjective (how you feel/worry) and objective (what really happened).

Often it seems that worrying comes from a generalised fear about the future. "What if this happens?" "What if that happens?" "What if I…" "What if I don't…"

As was mentioned about, it's scanning the environment for threats and trying to preparing for any eventuality. The escape into fantasy is perhaps telling for when I do that, I am looking for both an escapist experience, and also something structured. The author, screenwriter, etc. is directing the journey. There's no worry because there's no decision beyond engaging with the content. What is the relief you feel when you escape into fantasy?

Also, a good measure of worry is your use of the word "should". How often do you use the word "should" either in terms of your own actions or those actions of other people? "Should" statements seem to indicate when we believe there is some external standard that we are to adhere to -- and we feel failing at that.

The root of these things may be wide and varied. That is perhaps the biggest goal of therapy -- to find out what attitude is driving the behaviour. Often, I've found it's a very specific experience when I adopted a certain perspective or way of being. For a long time, I left that way of being unevaluated -- just thinking that was "the way things are". Then, when chatting to a therapist, and I say "well, that's just the way things are, right?" "No, that is the way you are seeing them. I do not see the situation like that at all. I see it like this…"

It really can help. If you have the time and inclination, perhaps you will get quite a lot out of the experience.
posted by nickrussell at 6:56 AM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm, like yourself, a worry-wart. However, not as bad as it used to be. Ever since I stopped putting people on pedestals and realize they're human just like I am, it lessened fears of failing. Now, worrying about my future and past, I swear to you, if you like reading books, I really suggest the Power of Now. No, really. With meditation, some excercise and little doses of that book, I started to relax. It made sense. Why worry about the inevitable or things that aren't present in your life, right NOW? To me, that's ineteresting. Oh and you might find that you're not properly breathing. Do you often hold it, without realizing or do you sigh a lot? Breath!
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:34 AM on March 4, 2012

A number of people have mentioned scheduling "worry time". This is something therapists often recommend, I think. You can read more about it here and here. If you are looking for books on the subject, I think a pretty widely recommended one is The Worry Cure. It uses a cognitive-behavior-therapy approach, as mentioned elsewhere in this thread.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:44 AM on March 4, 2012

nthing what others have said about Actual Psychiatric Advice. That said, I grew up in a very religious family and I was an overachieving only child: stress about failures, both academic and moral and [ fill in the blank ] were a huge part of my life for a long time.

A couple of things helped me on a day-to-day basis. First, I kept lists. Not obsessive lists but general to-do lists and lists of ideas I came up with. It helped me externalize a lot of "remembering" tasks, and left me with a lot less stress about whether I was forgetting important things. When I felt confident that reminders would tell me when something was due, and bills would get paid when they needed to get paid without me being in a constant statte of distress, it helped me focus on the more serious issues.

Second, I took a long hard look at what would happen if I failed. Not the worst case "If I botch this project then people will hate me and my boss will fire me and my GF will leave me and I'll die alone on the streets" kind of thinking, just honest assessment. How have people I know and respect handled the kind of failure I fear? What's happened to them? Have I ever failed in the past? Other than my own panic, what actual repercussions were there? Failure is no fun and there are often some consequences, but for those of us gripped with terror at the idea of not "nailing it," it turns out that the fear of failing at something is often way way worse than the real thing.

That sounds like a cheap platitude, I know. But for me at least, learning to avoid failure without being terrified of it was a big step. Mind you, it helped to have a therapist and a wife helping me and supportive friends. So if it's something that is really having a huge impact on your life, it might not be a bad idea to look into a good counselor or therapist. But at the end of the day I think it really boils down to: your fears are worse than reality, and figuring out how to focus your gaze on "what will likely happen" rather than hypothetical worst case scenarios could be a big step.
posted by verb at 8:09 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

So much good advice above, I hesitate to add, but I'll keep it short. Yes, whenever your work/sleep/goals are strongly impacted, counseling is indicated, but until you see one also consider: 1) not everyone is as free from worry as you think, people present a confident mask to all but closest friends and family, and some just naturally don't worry as much 2) humans are excellent at imagining various future scenarios, but at least one psychologist argues we are lousy at deciding which one is really best, 3) seconding what verb said, including the part about me being a natural worry wart, but external tools have helped me --- especially now with phone apps and reminders and Evernote checklists, etc. --- to have a sense of reasonable control over my life, and metrics on progress, including back-ups where others are responsible for important tasks, but I schedule a task a day later to see if it really happened.
posted by forthright at 8:57 AM on March 4, 2012

Seconding theotherguy's suggestion. It has helped me and some others I know immensely. The way it worked for me was to set a specific time, say 5:00-5:15 pm (longer at first perhaps), and to absolutely devote that time to worrying, and do nothing else. Never miss a day. Get some worry beads, if you like, or just sit and rock, whatever worrying requires of you. Think of all the possible causes for worry, even digging up new ones to fill the time. Really worry. And then you're done for the day.

When a worry pops up during the rest of the day, say to yourself: "I have time for that, and this is not that time. I will worry about that at the appropriate time."
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:42 AM on March 4, 2012

Another recommendation for The Worry Cure; I found it pretty helpful, especially in the insight that worrying often tricks us into thinking that it's some sort of productive mental work when in fact it's the polar opposite. So, for example, we might worry about work or our health under the guise of "figuring out all the ways to deal with what could possibly go wrong," but really all that we're doing is making up imaginary scenarios and getting upset about them, with absolutely nothing useful (no new insight, no new strategy, no new sense of control) to show for it in the end.

Going at it from a somewhat different direction, I would also recommend (if you are inclined to explore a Buddhist approach) Pema Chodron's Getting Unstuck, which I found to be really enlightening in identifying how not to keep going down the same uncomfortable mental paths time and time again.

But finally, there's no substitute for working with a therapist in an ongoing, safe, supportive environment for issues of anxiety. I hope you can look into it, because I think it could eventually bring you real relief. Good luck.
posted by scody at 12:18 PM on March 4, 2012

"Worrying is like paying interest on a debt you might not even owe."

I use this as a mantra whenever I'm stressing over little stuff because the problem with stressing over little stuff is that it doesn't add linearly in your mind. A whole bunch of trivial crap gets added together and pretty soon the mental interest you are paying is enough to paralyze you, while the amount of concern your actual issues deserve is mental pocket change.

Something that works for me is to find something small with a tangible and useful output that can fill the niche that reading and watching TV currently fill, something that you can devote a few minutes to when you are getting bogged down, but, when you step back, you can say, "I have accomplished a THING, now I will go accomplish another thing!"

Also, if you feel like you've worked yourself into a rut of worry and are having trouble getting out of it, talk to a pro. That's what they're there for.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:26 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill:

"I spent my whole life worrying about things that never came to pass."

Not such a good way to live.

If something bad happens, deal with it at the time. You can't anticipate every negative consequence flowing from every interaction in your life.

That said, this is something a lot of people struggle with and I'm not sure anyone has the perfect mantra to avoid occasional worry and concern.
posted by mygoditsbob at 1:22 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking of mantras, my two primary ones are: "whatever happens, I can handle it" and "take care of the present, and the future will take care of itself." They definitely don't work all the time, but they work remarkably well most of the time.
posted by scody at 1:43 PM on March 4, 2012

Seconding cognitive behavioral therapy. Learning to safely, slowly expose myself to the things that scare me has been the only thing that has stemmed the tide of worry in my life.
posted by stargazer360 at 2:07 PM on March 4, 2012

It's a common error to think that we're in control of our minds.

Instead, picture your mind as a small yappy dog or a fractious toddler.

It will run around thinking of things, jumping from idea to idea.

Don't let it.

Sit somewhere comfortable, breathe in and out, close your eyes.

YOU'LL THINK OF SOMETHING OMG OMG now don't try and stop thinking of it - that will never work. Instead, take that thought and hold it.

Think of it from all angles, sort of just regarding it. When it tries to dance away and be replaced by something else, pull it back. Don't think of its implications, don't think of related things, think of it.

Eventually it will dissolve. Enjoy the space before another thought comes, then do the same thing when it does.

Eventually no other thoughts will come. Enjoy that space too.

After , get up.

This is a technique that takes practice, like all techniques, but once learned will serve you for life.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Misery loves company.
I have self dx'd GAD and I find that getting into a really lively self help online forum has helped me tremendously. We all complain and we help each other and learn about our problem together.
This is the best one I have found:
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 6:05 PM on March 4, 2012

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