How to Stop Worrying and Focus on What Matters
Do you focus on what could go wrong? Do you worry that bad things will happen? Do you stress about bad things that already happened? Do you just worry regardless of what’s happening? It turns out that almost all your worrying serves no purpose. If you’re carrying stress, you may be stressing for no reason at all.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. Focus just a little differently and you could experience a whole different world – one with a lot less stress where solutions are readily available to you.
Worrying About Nothing
A 2019 Penn State University study showed that people who are chronically anxious are worrying about things that don’t ever happen. The study’s participants, all of whom had generalized anxiety disorder, wrote down what they worried about four times a day over the course of ten days. They then reviewed their list of worries daily for thirty days to see if any of them came true.
Ninety-one percent of their worries didn’t happen! Ninety-one percent! In other words, almost all the time and energy they devoted to worrying served no purpose other than to stress them out.
But what about the nine percent that actually did come true? Even there, the result was better than expected for about a third of those worries. And for 25% of the participants, NONE of their worries came to pass. Zero.
Your mileage may vary, but chances are pretty good that the majority of your worrying is pointless. Imagine what you could accomplish if that same time and energy were instead devoted to fulfilling meaningful life goals. Imagine how much better you would feel and how much better you would perform your daily work if you weren’t carrying the stress of all that worry about nothing.
It’s Time to Be Honest with Yourself
If virtually all of the things you worry about don’t happen, then you could view worrying as a form of lying to yourself. When you worry, you divert your focus and energy away from doing the things that matter in your life, and instead devote yourself to fantasy worst-case scenarios that rarely enter your reality. You’re also jeopardizing your health. An estimated 75-90% of doctor’s visits are related to stress.
Living a life filled with worry about things that don’t happen, or rarely happen, is essentially living a life of diversion. Yet worrying seems to come all too easily to many of us. It feels like a natural coping mechanism to get through the day.
Even if most of our worries don’t come true, we somehow feel more in control when we worry. Except that we aren’t. Worrying doesn’t give us control over the event we worry about. Worrying doesn’t even give us control over our own minds. All worrying does is submerge us in a sea of stress.
May I suggest a better way.
Ask Tough Questions
If you are lying to yourself by worrying, then you owe it to yourself to embrace (a less stressed) reality by challenging yourself with questions.
Most of what you worry about concerns either past or future events. If you are worrying about something that already happened, then it is legitimate to simply ask yourself:
“Exactly how does my worrying about [fill in the blank] that already happened change the situation?”
The answer to that question, pretty much 100% of the time, will be, “It doesn’t.”
If worrying about what happened in the past doesn’t change it, then the next reasonable question to ask yourself is:
“If worrying won’t change this situation, is there anything else I could do that would change this situation for the better?”
Now you are moving from the realm of debilitating worry that accomplishes nothing to the realm of seeking out constructive solutions. It’s obvious which will lead to both less stress and a better response to what life throws your way.
Suppose you’ve been worrying that you overpaid for an appliance. By asking yourself these questions, you will quickly discover that your worrying isn’t accomplishing anything. You bought the appliance. The date by which you could have returned it has already passed. Worrying will not bring your money back. It will only keep you from enjoying the somewhat expensive appliance that is now in your possession.
By next asking what you could do to change the situation, although you cannot return the appliance, you can decide to educate yourself about proper pricing for future appliance purchases. You can resolve that the next time you make a major purchase, you will first do your research, and then decide in advance, before entering the store, what is the highest amount you will pay.
Of course, this is just one example, and you can apply this line of questioning to any situation. The point is that you will be doing yourself far more good by getting to a place where you are thinking of constructive solutions rather than engaging in unconstructive worry.
If you are worrying about a future event, the process is similar. Ask yourself honestly if the event is likely to happen. Most of the time, the answer will be no.
If you do think it might come true, then ask yourself what you can do to change the situation. If you’re worried you might bomb a presentation you have to give for work, then you would be better served by finding the best ways to prepare and spending time preparing rather than worrying about what might go wrong. Whatever the object of your stress, stepping back and constructively planning for future contingencies is far more helpful than worrying.
But What If My Worries Are Real?
Some of your worries may not be about past or future events. They might be happening right now. You may have a current financial crisis. Or a difficult situation at work. Or a relationship issue that is ongoing. Or maybe you’re being chased by a bear (unlikely, but it could happen). All of these are present tense situations that can get you very worried.
Obviously, there’s no point in asking whether the event is likely to happen. It’s happening. So instead, honestly ask yourself if your stress and worry is improving the situation, or is the best way to improve the situation. Likely it’s not.
Next ask yourself specifically what you could do that would improve the situation. Write it down. Then pick whichever solution you think is most likely to make a difference. In almost every case, your willingness to move constructively toward a solution will accomplish more than stressing over it. And you’ll feel better without all that pointless worry.