How to Worry Less and Start Living Your Life
Does worry keep you up at night?
Do you think about the same problems over and over?
Has worrying stopped you from doing the things you enjoy?
You’re not alone.
I worry too. So do a lot of people. Excessive worrying is a habit that many of us can’t seem to break. Although I haven’t been able to completely rid myself of worrying, I’ve been able to keep it to a more manageable level with a few strategies that I found. And ironically, I came upon these strategies at a time when excessive worrying took over my life.
How I Became Stuck in a Vicious Cycle of Worrying
Have you ever searched for a medical condition online only to find out that it could be X, Y, or Z —all of them diseases that will inevitably kill you within the next 5 weeks to 5 years?
Yeah, I’ve done that.
That’s what we Worry Warts do, we seek out information to fill out the missing pieces of the puzzle, and try to create certainty in a highly uncertain situation such as after receiving a medical diagnosis. But in this frantic search for certainty, we lose the ability to rationally assess the relevance and accuracy of the information. Our minds simply react to whatever we see without teasing through it with a fine-tooth comb to separate fact from fiction.
As if that’s not bad enough, the other thing that Worry Warts like to do is picturing the worst possible outcome with the most striking details. And here’s where we get into trouble: when the desire to seek out information meets a weakened ability to rationally process the information, and put into the mix the tendency to imagine the worst outcome, we get a disruptive trio that wrecks havoc on our mental well-being.
That’s exactly what happened to me.
If you search the 5-year survival rate of Leukemia online, you will get a whole range of results. These statistics range widely due to the various types of Leukemia, the subtypes within these types, and other factors such as access to healthcare, age, interactions with other existing health concerns, et cetera. You will never find a definite answer on the Internet that fits your case perfectly. It would be like trying to find the right key to a lock in a big drawer of keys, but the lock is really a combination lock. But did that stop me from searching for an answer from the Internet? No.
Even when the doctors reassured me that everything was going well and my prognosis was good, I wasn’t convinced. My mind still fixated on the worst outcome as if it was already happening.
Like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was eternally stuck in the physical task of pushing a boulder up a hill, I was hopelessly stuck in the mental task of worrying. Although our tasks differed, our fate was the same—we both got nowhere.
The 3 Questions That Helped Me Worry Less
So how did I get unstuck? Well, it didn’t happen overnight that’s for sure. There were a series of ah-ha moments that built on top of each other and eventually showed me the way.
And these ah-ha moments came to me in the form of 3 different questions.
Question #1: “What Are the Facts Currently In Front of Me?”
To be honest, I don’t remember when and how this first question came up. Perhaps it was something someone had said to me, or just an idea that gradually solidified on its own. But over time I learned to pay more attention to facts.
Not the information that was floating out there, not what I thought was going to happen, but the facts right in front of me just at that point in time.
What are facts? Facts are objective pieces of information that are supported by evidence. If it can’t be proven, it’s not a fact.
I started to ask myself the question “what are the facts currently in front of me?” whenever I felt my mind was running in circles with worry. Then I would further look at my answers to see if they are indeed facts that exist in the here and now. If it’s a fact that is true at the present moment, I accept it and try to find a way to cope with it. If it’s something that is not a fact today, but has the potential to become a fact at a later point in time, I tell myself to not pay attention to it until it becomes a fact. This strategy has helped me greatly reduce the intensity of my worrying.
Do I have certain health challenges? Yes, that’s a fact. I accept this to be a fact that exists in the present moment. I find ways to work around these challenges as best as I can.
Will I die from these challenges? It might become a fact later in the future, but it’s not a fact today. I have the power to choose to only focus on the facts that are in front of me today. What might become facts later will just have to wait.
Question #2: “Do I Have Control Over the Things I Worry About?”
One day during the fall of 2007, I hit a rough spot emotionally. The treatment wasn’t going as well as I expected and worries about the future began to gnaw at me.
I broke down and bawled my eyes out with the last bit of energy I had. The nurse who was attending to me on that day came quickly to my bedside and tried to calm me down.
She listened attentively to my garbled mutterings for a while, then she asked me to ask myself this question: do I have control over the things I worry about?
I stopped crying for a second and thought about it. The answer, as much as I didn’t like it, was no.
The fevers, my painfully low white blood cells, the possibility of an infection—all the things that I was most worried about were things that were out of my control.
“Let the doctors worry about those things Sabrina, that’s their job. You just focus on the things you can control.” The nurse said to me.
Looking back at that moment still brings tears to my eyes. You know how you get these moments of clarity where it’s almost as if a switch suddenly flipped inside of you and the lights came on? What this nurse said to my 19-year-old self on that day had brought about a moment of clarity for me that would become the trigger for my eventual transformation. It was such a brief moment in time, and yet so significant.
Following her advice, I started to separate, in my mind, the things I had control over and the things I didn’t have control over. The things I didn’t have any control over I had to learn to let them go.
I had to learn to accept that no amount of worrying will be able to fix the things that I have no control over. I could either focus my time and energy on worrying and never get anywhere, or I could direct my attention to the things I actually have the ability to change.
So that’s what I did. I began to focus on things I could change—my health habits, my attitude and outlook, and the way I interacted with the world. And once I started seeing the improvements in the things that I had control over, I wanted to focus even more of my attention on those things. Directing energy on the things we have control over not only provides a good distraction from rumination, it generates a sense of empowerment that’s vital to our wellbeing.
Question #3: “What Would I Have Missed Out on If My Worries Didn’t Come True?”
Ok this is embarrassing to admit, but for a period of time after I went into remission in 2008, I stared at my arms a lot. And I mean, a lot.
Because right before I received the cancer diagnosis in 2007, I had seen clusters of tiny red specks on both of my arms. I found out after the diagnosis that these specks are called petechiae, and are caused by tiny broken capillaries under the skin. They’re a sign of abnormality in the blood.
Despite having received a good prognosis for the type of Leukemia I had, I was still Haunted by the thought of relapse. Driven by the fear and worry of relapse, I closely monitored the skin on my arms for any signs of its return. I became so obsessed with examining my arms that at times Tony, my boyfriend at the time (who is now my husband), had to pry my arms away from my face.
I’m not joking.
At my most fervent stage, I would give my arms a once over every 5 to 10 minutes. I did this during all my waking hours regardless of what I was doing. Needless to say, this habit was consuming my life.
Then one day, I stopped looking at my arms.
A friend who I hadn’t seen in a while was visiting me and she had noticed my peculiar habit.
“Why do you keep looking at your arms?” she had asked with an incredulous look on her face.
I explained sheepishly to her about my worry over relapse, and that this was my way of staying ahead of the game just in case the disease had returned. She then looked at me, a little amused but mostly concerned, and said: “if you lived to age 80 and never had a relapse, wouldn’t you have wasted all these years worrying about relapse?”
I’ll never forget the next sentence that came out of her mouth.
“You would have missed out on so much in your life because all this time you were busy looking down at your arms.”
What this friend said to me on that day painted a picture of two drastically different futures in front of me, in both futures I get to live to a ripe old age, never having a relapse. But in one future my life is dull and unfulfilling, having had to live with anxiety for the last 60 years, my eyes never straying far from the skin on my arms. In the other future, I get to live a full life, one filled with purpose and profound inner peace, my eyes always open and ready to see the beauty around me.
I made a decision then and there on which future I wanted my life to look like.
I confess, I still get the occasional urge to look at my arms, and I do from time to time. But the thought is only fleeting. I don’t dwell on the possibility of relapse anymore like I used to.
I don’t want to miss all the good things in my life just because all this time, I was too busy looking down, wrapped up in my own worries.
Every time I start to think about relapse now, I would transport myself to an imaginary future, one where I’m standing at the end of a long life. In this future, after a lifetime of worrying and living with fear, my worries never did come true. I would then come back to the present moment and think to myself: what would I have missed out on?
There’s only so much room in our lives. The more we room we give to worrying the less room we have for other things. Good things, incredible things, make-your-heart-skip-a-beat spectacular things like laughing with our friends till our stomachs hurt, kissing in the dark with the love of our lives, and seeing a sunrise in a place we’ve never been before. The sacrifices we have to make in order to make room for our worries are simply too great.
My Life as a Recovering Worry Wart
It’s not easy to break the cycle of worrying. I’m not saying that by asking yourself the 3 questions above you’ll never worry again, but it’s a good place to start.
There are times when I still worry excessively. I steal glances at my arms, I get nervous about the next blood test, and I pay more attention than I should to the way I pant during exercise. I think about our mortgage, the earthquake—known as the “big one”—that’s destined to hit the Pacific Westcoast, and the plane falling from the sky when I fly.
Sometimes the worries flood over me and I have to give in and let them play out in my mind for a bit. Then I move on to the bigger and better things in life, the things I have the power to change, and the things I don’t want to miss out on.
Worries, like unwelcomed house guests, still show up in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bar them from intruding.
The difference is now I don’t let them stay.