Do you regularly find yourself stuck in a loop of anxiety-inducing ‘what ifs’? Here’s how to break the cycle of compulsive worry. 

It’s a simple fact of life that all of us will worry about things from time to time. Whether it’s a big project at work playing on our mind or family issues which need to resolved, it’s completely normal – and healthy – to worry about things. After all, the tendency to worry is an entrenched part of the ‘fight or flight’ instinct that evolved to alert us to dangerous situations.

But there are times when the worrying becomes obsessive, and that’s when it becomes a problem. Studies have show that 85% of what we worry about never happens, and while excessive worrying can be a sign of high intelligence, too much of it causes the brain to be flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect our memory and other mechanisms.

On the surface, it’s easy to see that worrying is a pretty pointless task, but that doesn’t stop many of us from finding ourselves ‘stuck’ in a negative loop of “what ifs?”. We turn the same concerns over again and again, without any solution or the ability to break away. This kind of rumination is ultimately bad for you, because it’s linked to a higher risk of depression and anxiety.

So, what can we do about it? According to science, there’s one simple tactic that we can use to stem the tide of negativity before it spirals out of our control. 

“One of the most helpful things you can do instead of worrying is problem-solving,” says psychologist Melanie Greenberg, writing in Psychology Today. “Problem-solving means defining the problem in a way that you can do something about it.”  

As a mental tool, problem-solving might sound too simple to be true. The compulsion to worry can be so overwhelming, it’s hard to imagine that it can be curtailed by this rational and straight-forward mechanism. 

But the technique works on a number of powerful levels. 

Firstly, it encourages you to “name it to tame it”. By defining what exactly your worry is, you bring it out into the open. This gives you crucial distance from the whirlpool of your mind.

Secondly, by framing your worry as a problem to fix, you move to positive action. Instead of obsessing over what would happen if you lost your job/partner/house, for example, you focus on how you could prepare for such an outcome. 

By doing so, you begin to rationalise the worry. “One you have a defined problem you can generate some possible solutions, and think through the likely consequences of each,” says Greenberg. 

When you peel back the layers of a particular issue, you bring it into the real world – which in turn will stop you from catastrophising. You see the worry for what it really is.

Finally, you can put your solution into practice: whether that’s by talking to someone, taking specific action or mindfully accepting what you cannot change (a state that brings about increased happiness).

Much like Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea to re-frame anxiety as concern, problem-solving can bring your obsessive worrying to a calmer, cooler-headed place.

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