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Don’t try to worry less. Worry smarter.

Try these steps to make worry less of a burden — locate it in your body, make it concrete, problem solve and let it go

An illustration of the top of someone's head with flowers growing out of it, while a tiny person waters them. The expression on their face appears worried.
(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)

When I think about worry, I think of the most anxiety-provoking time of my life. It was 2008, and I was pregnant with my first child. At my ultrasound checkup, my husband and I learned that our son would be born with a congenital heart condition. This condition is fatal if not corrected through open-heart surgery within months of birth.

For the remainder of my pregnancy, I was almost never completely free of worry: How can we get him the best care? How will this affect his life? Will he be okay?

Worry is the thinking part of anxiety, directing us to figure out why we’re anxious and what to do about it. It evolved to grab our attention and focus it on the uncertain future, priming us to take useful actions. Worry is a form of problem solving, where we use “what-if” simulations to picture worst and best outcomes to find solutions. In that sense, worry is an attempt to control the future. That’s why worry agitates us, persistently or even relentlessly, because it exists to engage us in dealing with future uncertainties and working to make things turn out all right.

Worry has to feel bad to do its job, but it can make anxiety worse, especially when combined with meta-worry — worrying that worry will spiral out of control and do us harm. In people diagnosed with anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, meta-worry often drives the vicious cycle of anxiety. In an attempt to feel more in control and less emotional pain, they worry persistently — like a perpetual motion machine of the mind. Yet, this juggernaut of thoughts and feelings amplifies anxiety to distressing levels, and feels so out of control that it causes people to worry more and feel less able to cope. The more one worries, the harder it is to let go.

Doesn’t all this go to show that we should prevent or squelch worry as soon as possible? Yet, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Suppressing thoughts and feelings never works — and paradoxically increases anxiety and worries while reinforcing the belief that worries are uncontrollable, and blocking us from figuring out other ways of coping.

I discovered this for myself with my son’s heart condition. My worries were constant and exhausting, but shunting them aside didn’t work. So I tried the opposite. I tried to use my worries. Every time I worried, I went into action mode: I read every paper published on the condition, I asked our nurses and doctors a million questions, and I imagined best- and worst-case scenarios so I could plan each detail of my son’s care.

Worry didn’t only prime me to prepare. It helped me survive emotionally because I never stopped believing that if I planned and worked hard enough, our son would live and thrive — even though I also knew that total control over the future is an illusion.

Our son is now 14 years old. He loves playing the piano, writing, running and wrestling. As his doctors told us after his surgery, there are no restrictions on what he can do.

Worry isn’t going anywhere. It’s the human condition — and can be an advantage in challenging times. But it also is a double-edged sword and can become a serious problem. Suppression of worry simply doesn’t work, so we need other approaches so that we can learn to worry well and eventually worry less. Try these steps, in order:

Locate worry in your body

Worry keeps you in your head rather than feeling emotions in your body. So, when you find yourself worrying, pause and refocus attention on your sensations. Look for the usual signs — heart beating faster; weakness; warmth; stiffness; a dry, constricted throat; rapid breathing; or butterflies in the stomach. Explore them. Maybe move your body to see if that changes how you feel. Stretch. Sit up straight. Breathe. Practice riding the wave of your feelings. They will rise and fall, even without you doing anything.

Make worry concrete and contained

Next, tune into your worried thoughts. Treat yourself like a friend who needs you to lend an ear. If you have a jumble of thoughts, what’s the one that rises to the surface? You can also schedule worry time: Pick a specific period of time to worry (for example, 15 minutes). Write down all the worries that pop into your head and describe them clearly and concretely. Consider the negative outcomes, as well as the positive possibilities. Only worry during worry time. It might surprise you to find that during worry time, you become bored of worrying and stop early.

Problem solve

Worries are diminished by plans and actions. So, once you identify a worry, problem solve in steps.

  • Brainstorm solutions that are in your control.
  • Evaluate their pros and cons.
  • Take time to think through your ideas.
  • Make a solid plan to try out one or more of these solutions. The more details you write down the better.
  • Start with small, doable steps. If you keep your plan vague or overambitious, you’ll be less likely to achieve it.
  • Try out the solution and evaluate how it worked.
  • Consider whether adjustments and additional problem solving is needed.

Let go of worries

Worries send us into the future, and once we’ve visited there, it’s time to let go and return to the present. There are many ways to do so: exercise; take a long walk; write in your journal; paint a picture; or speak with a friend or counselor. Social support — speaking with someone you trust to help you put your worries into words, rather than stew in a miasma of vague distress — is one of the best ways to let go.

When we practice taking these steps in order, we will find that worry can be a call to action, and when we act, it graciously steps aside and tells us — job well done!

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, is a psychology and neuroscience professor and health technology entrepreneur based in New York City. She is the author of “Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad).”

We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.

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