Why We Worry
Your brain is designed to worry first and think through situations second. We tend to scan the environment for danger, even when we meet friendly people or are in a safe situation. Our brains have the tendency to perceive threat and react to negative input more strongly than positive input. In fact, it’s easier to give more attention to negative feelings than positive ones because we tend to overexamine the FUD factor: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. This is called the brain’s negative bias.
Your brain reacts so quickly it will tell you if a person is trustworthy in a fraction of a second, even if you don’t consciously see the person’s face. In a study to test this ability, real and computer-generated faces were flashed at a speed below conscious perception. The results showed that the brain recognizes whether a person looks trustworthy.
We quickly form negative judgments of others when we decide they don’t—even though there is no confirming data. This perceptual capacity connects to our ability to manage fear and anxiety. When you recognize someone is trustworthy, you feel calm. When you perceive someone is untrustworthy, you feel threatened and anxious.
Worry is the tendency to dwell in anxiety and uncertainty over real or imagined problems, cutting straight to the negative judgment, often without pausing for a reality check. The resulting agitation will cause you to incessantly problem-solve and search for different outcomes without ever finding relief. If you are a worrier, you may find yourself attempting to explore all the possible things that can go wrong so you can be prepared.
Think about the dour old saws that push you in that direction: Forewarned is forearmed. If you want something done right, do it yourself. Trust no one. The problem with this approach to life is that you will never feel completely ready for those imaginary bad outcomes. So you keep worrying. “What if…?” is a common question worriers ask themselves, and they fill in the blanks with the worst possible future.
Calm Your Fears to Work Through Tough Times
We’re often taught that in order to solve a problem we should stay with it, worrying it like a dog with a bone, until we find the solution. But that’s all wrong. Our brain lays down neural pathways every time we experience something troublesome or worrying. Focusing on the problem or event (such as reliving a past event over and over trying to see what you could have done differently) only keeps those neural patterns active and leaves you stuck in the same mindset you were in when you first encountered the problem. As Einstein himself said, the same level of consciousness that created a problem cannot solve it. However, resources such as confidence, courage, persistence, and optimism are generally encoded when we are in positive mental states. So to gain access, we must return to that positive mental state.
Experimenting with different relaxation triggers will provide you with a blueprint for altering your emotional make-up. You’ll know that if you just need to take the edge off, a quick jog in place will do, and if you need to completely relax, you need to head to the hot tub. And if you’re not in a position to do either because you’re on an airplane or at work, just remembering how it feels to do that activity will be enough to trigger the corresponding mental state. Accessing the appropriate mental state, whether it is courage, curiosity, or believing that giving up is not an option, is the prerequisite to overcoming any adversity.
You can change mental states in a variety of ways. You can change your: 1. Physiology: When you shift your posture or stand in a confident way, you shift your mental state. 2. Language: By changing the words you use. Instead of, “I can’t learn to play the piano,” try changing it to “I choose not to learn to play the piano.” Instead of “I can’t stop myself from overeating,” you could say, “I always choose what to put in my mouth.” 3. Level of Arousal: If you are anxious and make impulsive decisions, focus on changing your internal worry state by calming the mind. If you are slow to get off the couch, set up a reward for going to the gym (this can’t be donuts). 4. Mental Imagery: Imagine yourself in the mental state you want to experience. Remember a time you felt that way yourself and go over the details.
Zone Out to Make Big Decisions
A study done at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that when people took a break from worrying about a problem and focused on something less taxing, their performance increased by 40 percent.
In fact, when you are feeling stressed about an issue, stop thinking about it and do something relaxing. There comes a time of diminishing returns to continue to try to come up with solutions. When the mind fatigues, it’s time to make a change. Take your mind completely away from a problem or take a nap. Though you change your mental state and focus of attention, your unconscious mind continues to work on the problem. This approach often triggers a eureka moment.
You can use Mind Wandering to help you solve long-term bigpicture projects, but you can also use it strategically to keep you performing your best at work every day. Give your cognitive process a five-minute break every 45 minutes by focusing on a lovely vacation or experience from your past.
We often feel clear, calm, and connected after a round of positive Mind Wandering because it clears us for a while of our habitual attention style, mental models, and old patterns, and allows us to see things from a more expanded view that perceives our infinite potential and our connection to the rest of the world. When you move out of conditioned thinking and into the realm of possibility, it’s harder to return to a state of worry.
In this almost sacred and brief time right after Mind Wandering, ask yourself, “What do I want? What matters to me? What lights up my life?” Rather than focusing as usual on what others want or expect from you, focus on your deep yearnings. Is there something you really want to do? Try to hold yourself in a place of openness for a while and don’t allow your mind to start telling you why you can’t do things.
If you have difficulty doing this, sit in front of a tree for 20 minutes and allow your mind to wander around the details of the tree. Notice the amazing symmetry of the leaves and the patterns of the veins in the leaves. Observe the wind blowing through the tree and the pleasant sound the tree makes in response. You’ll find yourself in a relaxed state. Then ask the previous questions and see what answers you find.