"Worry is universal," says behavioral psychologist Simon Rego, coauthor of the Worry Less Report: A White Paper on the Prevalence of Worrying & Coping Mechanisms for Americans At Home Or On the Road for Liberty Mutual Insurance. "The most telling statistic in our entire review was that about 40% of population worried daily. There’s got to be a usefulness to it; it wouldn’t be so prevalent if there wasn’t a function to worry."
In fact, worry isn’t all bad. "Worry can push us to focus our attention on areas that are important to us," says Rego. "Worry gives us a boost of energy to take action on those things we’ve identified; it narrows our attention and moves us with energy and adrenaline."
When worry becomes harmful is when you experience the cycle of revving up and preparing, but don’t act, says Rego. "You can get stuck under the weight of worries that circulate around you," he says.
The key is to capitalize on the positive side of worry without going to levels that are problematic. Here are four tricks for calming your worries and turning them into productive action:
Worry often starts when you’re faced with an uncertainty. "When we’re uncertain about how things will fall in place, our minds start to generate a lot of ‘what ifs,’" Rego says. "We start to think of all the things that could go wrong."
Instead of worrying in a quest for certainty—something that can’t happen all of the time—slow down and identify these thoughts as mental events.
"Acceptance is building tolerance and an appreciation that some things you can control and some things you cannot," he says. "If I’m driving, for example, I cannot control the traffic. I can accept what is in front of me, and know that I will eventually get to my destination."
This type of worry can pull you into planning for the future. Worrying about a break-in, for example, might prompt you to take productive action by getting an alarm system. "When the mind generates ‘what-if’ thoughts, answer them if they’re useful," says Rego.
Worrying is also a coping mechanism when you’re overwhelmed or entering into something unfamiliar. "Sort your worries and notice which are useful and which are making you unnecessarily miserable," says Rego. "Once you notice which worries are productive, begin to strategize solutions."
If you’re moving, a situation that can cause a lot of worries, identify steps that will help you problem solve. "You may want to consult with experts so that you have the information you need to appropriately budget and plan," says Rego. "You can also consult savvy friends. If your worry is strategic, your life will feel intact."
Don’t let worry catch you off guard, says Rego. "Take control of when you worry and for how long," he says. "Tuesday at 1 p.m., you have 15 minutes to worry about your kitchen renovation, for example."
Planning to worry seems paradoxical, but it can reduce the total amount of time you spend worrying. "As we lean in, we can actually develop control over the worries," he says. "It makes it easier to let them go as they emerge, jotting them down for later, then returning our attention to what we were doing."
Quite often what had our mind in the moment will no longer be worrisome when we return to it. "We have discovered that there is a shelf life to worry," says Rego. "Later it is not as potent as we thought."
Worry is a thought that lives in the future, says Rego, and practicing mindfulness and living in the moment can eliminate it. "Stop thinking about what you need to do at work on Monday while you’re gardening on a Saturday afternoon," he says. "Take in how amazing your new flower beds are looking in your backyard."
When you focus your attention on present with no judgment, you can catch your attention drifting and redirect it to the here and now. "I can worry about something that may or may not be likely, or I can just enjoy moment," says Rego. "Enjoy the moment."