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The world seems upside down. How to worry less, relax more.

From inflation, to mass shootings, to war in Ukraine, the vast majority of Americans are stressed. The good news is you can learn how to reign in worried thinking.
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From Covid-19, to inflation, to mass shootings, to the war in Ukraine — the world seems so uncertain right now. Throw in the daily stressors in our personal and professional lives, and it’s no wonder the vast majority of Americans are stressed.

A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found 87 percent of us feel like “there has been a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years.”

Of course, worrying can sometimes be hard to avoid. But it can also be a positive if it helps us address issues and problem solve. But when our thinking escalates into constant worry (what I call habitual versus situational worry) it becomes a burden and can feel emotionally draining.

The good news is you can reign in worried thinking. Here’s how:

Recognize that worrying is a choice you control

Many people believe worrying is involuntary and even obligatory. They think they need to worry to show they care and pride themselves on being reasonable, risk-averse and able to predict worst-case scenarios which they research and analyze to support their logic. Even when bad things don’t happen, they often feel their worrying was worth it, solidifying their worry habit.

The truth is we can overcome problems by assessing risk and directly addressing them. Research has found that a bad outcome feels just as bad whether we worry or not, making worrying an unnecessary part of the equation.

Understand what’s behind your worrying

People create habits for a reason, even when they’re not good for us. Typically, our habits give us something we’re subconsciously seeking. In the case of worriers, here’s what they get:

  • Identity – Worrying gives people an identity as a protector and doer of good. They often feel they must counterbalance others who are more risk-driven and dangerous.
  • Covert Power – This is the underlying power worriers get by drawing attention to their concerns. They create a social dynamic where others feel a need to calm the worrier, take them seriously, listen to their concerns and take care of them. The worrier’s energy permeates relationships, giving the worrier a form of power and position.
  • Passive Role/Lack of Responsibility – The worrier usually prefers not to take charge of actions like decision-making, risk-taking, directing people, leading the main discussion, or overtly influencing others. They prefer a passive and more behind-the-scenes role, ultimately allowing them to avoid taking direct responsibility for the issue at hand or its outcome.

Being risk-averse, concerned for others, and analytical are not signs of weakness and can be an important part of any group dynamic. However, it’s not about whether it’s right or wrong, it’s that these traits can be leveraged without the emotional burden of worry.

Employ strategies to break the worry cycle.

Routine worrying leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity, but with directed effort, you can retrain your brain to think differently.

  • Take action faster – Stop thinking about what could go wrong and instead get into action to mitigate or solve the problem. Focus your mindset on variables you can control and let go of what you can’t.
  • Stop catastrophizing – Playing out worst case scenarios ahead of time is only necessary on rare occasions. Most of the time we can navigate problems when they happen, and the energy spent on preparing for an issue that never happens is a waste of time and energy.
  • Embrace your non-risk-taking side –Avoid the need to become a worrier to justify this part of you. Accept that you’re not a risk-taker and embrace your true self. And if you feel your aversion to risk is limiting your life, then put your energy into having more courage and confidence.
  • Gain the skill set you need to grow – Most parents worry a lot with their first baby, but by the third child are far more relaxed. This is because they have experience and are more comfortable with the job. In areas where you worry, focus instead on growing skills and trial and error.

Changing the worry habit is not easy, but it is possible. It will take time to adapt your identity into someone who is not “the worrier” and still be in your power. But it will open you up to many new possibilities. It will feel freeing, and allow you to put your energy, time, and talents elsewhere.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries