I’m a Psychologist, and These Are My Top 8 Tips for Distracting Yourself From Overwhelming Worry
I, for one, should know—I worried early and had a breakdown of sorts a week ago about the repercussions this pandemic may have on my personal finances and future plans. Since then, I've adopted some new habits to interrupt my worry spirals: reading the news less, opening up the Duolingo app for a quick language lesson when I feel my thoughts getting hysterical, and taking walks through my neighborhood (since I live in a city where this is currently permissible and the streets are deserted).
Turns out, I'm on the right track with these techniques. "Distraction is great as a first-line defense against worry," says Elana Cairo, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at NYC-based Alma. Below, she and clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, offer eight techniques you can test out ASAP for halting worry loops in their tracks. Check out those tips below.
8 ways to stop yourself from worrying about things you can't control
1. create a library of "nourishing activities" you can lean on
"[For distracting yourself from worry], any type of activity is great, but I would try to think about activities that are nourishing rather than depleting," says Dr. Cairo. "The two main categories would be activities that bring you joy or happiness to some degree and then activities where you can get a sense of achievement." She recommends making a list of these and keeping it posted somewhere easy to reference, so that when you feel a worry cycle coming on, interrupting it requires only minimal effort.
While Dr. Cairo notes these activities will be specific to the person, Dr. Daramus has a few suggestions to offer: working out; engaging in something that stimulates your sense of touch, like crafting; activating other sensory pleasures by looking at beautiful art (online or in books), listening to music, etc.; volunteering on or offline; finding things you can donate, "so you know someone is safer and more comfortable because of you," she says.
"You might not notice because this happens automatically, but as soon as you start to engage in an activity, your thoughts are changing to some degree." —Elana Cairo, PhD
If you're especially prone to worry, Dr. Cairo advises actually scheduling some of these activities into your day as a sort of mental-health maintenance strategy. "You might not notice because this happens automatically, but as soon as you start to engage in an activity, your thoughts are changing to some degree," she says.
2. Practice mindfulness
On that note, Dr. Cairo adds that you can and should also turn to mindfulness exercises, like meditation, as strategies for learning how to stop worrying about things you can't control. "Even if you're someone who's like, 'This is not for me,' I would say just try it," she says. "Because they actually guide you in noticing your thoughts and hopefully accepting them and letting them go—which is very hard to do on your own."
3. Try grounding rituals
Breathing exercises can help, too, as can grounding rituals. "For example, using your five senses to describe your environment, running cool or warm water over your hand, or even picking something as your grounding object so that when you hold onto that object—it reminds you to stay connected to the present moment," Dr. Cairo says. "You can also look around the room and label what you see, hear, or smell, because when you do that, it kind of says, 'Right in this moment, I'm looking/hearing/smelling this, and I'm okay'."
4. Talk to yourself as you would talk to a loved one
"Think to yourself, 'If my mom or my brother or my friend said they were worried things are never going to be okay, how would I respond to them?'" Dr. Cairo says.
Most likely, you'd focus on positive evidence that things will be okay in order to reassure them rather than harping on the worst-case scenarios. Take that same approach with yourself.
5. Schedule time to worry
Set aside some time to write out your worries or even speak them out loud, as Dr. Cairo says doing so can be helpful for lessening their influence on the rest of the day. She suggests choosing a neutral space (so, not the bedroom) for this practice.
6. Experiment with cognitive-behavioral therapy
This process aligns with mindfulness in that it involves noticing your thoughts, labeling them as worried thoughts, and practicing acceptance around them. If this doesn't work, Dr. Cairo says you can instead try balancing them out with helpful thoughts such as, 'In this moment, I am fine.'
This is a strategy I've been employing in the last week—telling myself I have food, water, and shelter, so I am not as threatened as I feel—and I've found it to be highly effective.
7. Notice old patterns arising in this novel circumstance
Though pandemic-related worries are new, Dr. Cairo notes that if you examine them closely, familiar patterns emerge. "Even though it feels different, it's very likely triggering similar patterns for us," she says. Examining what those patterns may be—for me, it's a familiar fear of running out of money—can help you employ strategies you've used in the past to combat them.
8. Take action
Dr. Daramus suggests some might find it helpful to set aside some time to write down a solid contingency plan. "Visualize your worry being emptied out on to the paper or into the computer screen," she says.
While all of the above strategies can be helpful, Dr. Cairo notes it's worth acknowledging that this is an unusual time and to practice self-compassion in light of it. "It is very much okay to have worries," she says. "Remember that you're not alone, and you can talk to people, therapists, whomever you need. No one should have to through this by themselves."
Need more inspiration for learning how to stop yourself from worrying about things you can't control? Find out which of the above techniques helped one writer become 50 percent more Zen. Plus, here's a little primer on self care for end times.
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