Don’t Make Mountains out of Molehills: Why We Worry and How to Cut Back

When does worrying cross the line? The difference between normal and pathological worrying is not the content – most people worry about the same types of things. What makes worrying problematic is the frequency, intensity and the perceived uncontrollability of the activity. Worrying becomes a problem when it is constant, when it distracts from other things that we should be doing, and when we can’t turn it off.

Why do people worry? Some people will say that they worry because it helps them solve problems because worrying helps them to “think constructively” about the issues they’re faced with. However, thinking about every possible thing that can go wrong is not the same as adaptive problem solving. Even worse, it is very easy to overestimate the value of worrying – when the “worst case” scenario that we have dreamed up doesn’t happen, we can be tricked into feeling as if we prevented a catastrophe by our worrying. Unfortunately, this chain of events provides positive reinforcement for continuing to worry even more in the future.

Here are three tips to help you reduce your worrying, stress and anxiety:

1. Focus on the present moment. Typically, when we worry, we are mulling over past things that cannot be changed, or future things that will never happen. If we focus on the present moment, by default we will worry less. Concentrate hard on each and every action you do throughout the day, and correspondingly try to increase your enjoyment of each moment. Notice how good your morning coffee tastes, observe how blue the sky is during your drive to work, sing along to your favorite song, give your kids an extra hug (or your dog or cat an extra pat) and appreciate how good that physical contact feels.

2. Accept that “good enough” is okay. Often worries stem from a perfectionistic approach to life. If your standards are too high, you will spend more time worrying that what you are doing isn’t good enough. This sense of not measuring up ultimately tends to undermine productivity and certainly decreases life satisfaction. Try to set realistic expectations and accept that sometimes you will make mistakes. Remember to give yourself credit for what you have achieved, vs. over-focusing on what went wrong.

3. Reduce life stress. Often life deals out challenges that are insurmountable – long work hours, demanding children, financial pressures, health concerns. Push back against these stressors with healthy coping strategies, which in turn will reduce worry and anxiety. Get more exercise, even if it is just a walk around the block at lunch time. Take a hot bath or shower at the end of a long day. Connect with a good friend – a 15 minute chat with a treasured person can go a long way towards easing tension. And finally, take a few minutes to just breathe. Sometimes it helps to also close your eyes, and concentrate on the action of inhaling and exhaling. Some people like to think about being filled up with calm as they breathe in, and letting go of tension as they breathe out.

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
FamilyFirst Psychological Services