Is a 20 kg rucksack too heavy? Probably yes, but only if you carry it on your back. If you put it down, it has no weight at all.
The same goes for our worries. We often carry way too much burden in our heads. Why not put them down?
But this sounds too simplistic — if people could, would they not? Surely it can’t be that easy. Not thinking won’t make the problems go away, will it?
It won’t. But the above questions arise from a fundamental confusion — worrying is not the same as problem-solving. The classic difference between problem-solving and worrying is that the former has an end-point. You problem-solve for a finite time, decide on the next steps, and then move on. In worrying, you don’t move on; often you get caught in a loop.
While there are no magic bullets, here is a practical guide for handling worrying more skillfully.
1. Put a problem-solving hat and find a resolution
Many worries ought to be approached with a problem-solving mindset. This may often sound impractical. Aren’t many problems in life without any solution? I understand your skepticism but bear with me here.
Let us say you have a heavy debt and have no means to repay. There is obviously no solution, is there?
The answer depends on how we define the solution. Maybe you can’t solve your debt problem under the current circumstances, but could you do it in 5 or 10 years, if the circumstances changed? And could you gradually change the circumstances by building up your income?
The above problem may have no solution in a 1-year time-frame but it may be solvable in a 5 or 10-year timeframe. For that, the first step is acceptance — we have to accept what we can’t solve quickly.
In fact, in many cases, acceptance is the only answer. E.g., for a person with an incurable health condition, unconditional acceptance may be the answer. It may not be a solution you love, but at least it is a resolution. In that sense, a better way to think is, “Can I resolve the problem?” rather than, “Can I solve the problem?”
But how do you build a habit of doing this? I have found my daily journal the most effective way to reflect on my worries. Treat journaling like a conversation you are having with yourself — talk about your worries and the root cause, possible ways to resolve it, the next steps, etc.
In fact, journaling is such a powerful tool that at HabitStrong, we include it as part of the morning routine in our bootcamps.
Think about journaling as an intimate conversation you are having with yourself. Your journal is just facilitating that conversation.
2. Cultivate mindfulness
Often, our mind wanders and picks something which could be potentially problematic, and then catastrophizes. E.g., “Could that stomach pain be an ulcer, which might be cancerous?” This is NOT to suggest that we should ignore health issues. But always assuming the worst is clearly not a very smart way to think.
One effective way to counter this is to be mindful; be present in the moment and experience the ‘here and now.’ When we are mindful, we truly experience life, enjoy its simple pleasures, and prevent our mind from jumping around and picking things to worry about.
Here is my working definition of mindfulness: “Bringing our deliberate attention to the present moment and accepting it without judgment or preference.” I would urge you to read more about mindfulness, a simple but powerful idea from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.
Here is an excellent book to get started on mindfulness – “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. It also covers meditation very nicely.
3. Realize that life is uncertain and the worst-case scenario doesn’t always pan out
Just examine your past life and see things you worried about. How many of them actually panned out as we thought?
More broadly, how often do your predictions come right? A decade ago, did you expect your life to be what it is today?
The truth is that life is way more uncertain than we realize.
Remember that the terrible scenarios you make up in your head often do not come to pass.
4. Realize that life is impermanent
All things good and bad come to an end. That is the nature of life. Everything changes. External circumstances also change. Our desires and hopes change. Whatever you worry about, whether real or imaginary, will not last forever. It will end.
This core Buddhist teaching is, I believe, truly transformative.
And here is my bet: Even if things went badly, they are not likely to be as bad as you imagined. Even Alfred Hitchcock agrees with me — he is supposed to have said: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Remember, everything changes and nothing lasts forever.
5. Don’t use your brain as a storage device – do a brain dump
Often, our worries get aggravated because we carry a zillion thoughts in our heads. Remember, our brain is a very good CPU but not a good hard drive. Just take a piece of paper and write down whatever is weighing on your mind. At HabitStrong, we call it a ‘brain dump.’
Once you are done with it, tell yourself that you can let go — you won’t forget it since it is out there in writing. If it feels appropriate, you can add it to a to-do list or keep it in some master list of things to be addressed in the future.
Use your brain as a processing device, not as a storage device.
Mindfulness meditation, where we focus on breath, can be a very good antidote to the anxiety that worrying creates. When we bring our mind into the present moment, our monkey-mind gradually calms down and it relieves anxiety.
But do understand that meditation is not an instant fix: It is not Maggi Noodles or a pill you pop for a magical cure. Treat it like a long term fixed deposit in a bank – give it time to mature as you do it consistently, without any expectations.
Schedule a regular time slot for the meditation practice and be consistent. When you do it without seeking results, that is when the benefits come.
7. Change your thoughts with cognitive restructuring
When a worry recurs, write it down. Then write an alternative way to think about the problem, which is healthier and less catastrophizing. Remember — we are not trying to deny the problem or fool ourselves but our worries often arise because we assume the worst-case scenario.
One of my favorite Buddhist monks once shared this story in a talk: He was once talking to a deeply worried cancer survivor who asked: “What if my cancer returns?” The monk asked her back, “What if it doesn’t?”
The above real-life story shows the flaw in our thinking. We always assume that the worst will happen, but what if it doesn’t? More broadly, our thinking patterns have a lot of hidden assumptions and biases, and I am asking you to consciously try to side-step them and write down a healthier way to think.
But you might ask, “How will just writing this down help?” Here is my answer: Whenever you get worried, read your diary again and again. It turns out that our pre-frontal cortex operates according to the principle of ‘Survival of the busiest.’ When we think in a healthier way, the neural wiring involved gets stronger. So reading things repeatedly does change the way we think.
Change the way you think to change the way you feel.
All the theory in the world has zero value if we don’t act on it. Get started. Set up a timer and do a journal or pick any other technique we talked about. If you have no time preference, start tomorrow at 7 am.
Start small, but start. Worries can’t defeat us, once we learn to treat them as impostors that come and go. For, in reality, that is what they are.
If you liked the article and feel it might help others, can I ask you to share it with people who might benefit? Thank you for reading. If you have the time, let me know the other topics you want me to write about.