How To Stress Out Less And Reduce Worrying

Nobody likes stressing and worrying. And, no, even if you think it keeps you sharp it’s not good for you. It can cause all sorts of health problems over time, including messing up your memory and ability to pay attention:

The authors report the first direct assessment of working memory capacity when people engage in worry. High and low worriers performed a random key-press task while thinking about a current worry or a positive personally relevant topic. High (but not low) worriers showed more evidence of restricted capacity during worry than when thinking about a positive topic. These findings suggest that high worriers have less residual working memory capacity when worrying than when thinking about other topics and, thus, have fewer attentional resources available to redirect their thoughts away from worry.

Source: “Restriction of working memory capacity during worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

“GAH! Now I’m worried about my worrying! What do I do?!”

Other than worry about it some more? Worrying seems largely to be a problem of attention:

Research suggests that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) show an attention bias for threat-relevant information. However, few studies have examined the causal role of attention bias in the maintenance of anxiety and whether modification of such biases may reduce pathological anxiety symptoms. In the present article, the authors tested the hypothesis that an 8-session attention modification program would (a) decrease attention bias to threat and (b) reduce symptoms of GAD. Participants completed a probe detection task by identifying letters (E or F) replacing one member of a pair of words. The authors trained attention by including a contingency between the location of the probe and the nonthreat word in one group (Attention Modification Program; AMP) and not in the other (attention control condition; ACC). Participants in the AMP showed change in attention bias and a decrease in anxiety, as indicated by both self-report and interviewer measures. These effects were not present in the ACC group. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that attention plays a causal role in the maintenance of GAD and suggest that altering attention mechanisms may effectively reduce anxiety.

Source: “Attention modification program in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Nobody can really stop paying attention, our brains don’t work like that. What you can do is shift your attention. Focusing on the possible benign outcomes of whatever you’re worrying about has been shown to help:

This research investigated whether increasing access to benign outcomes of ambiguous events decreases excessive worry. Participants reporting high levels of worry were assigned either to practice in accessing benign meanings of threat-related homographs and emotionally ambiguous scenarios or to a control condition in which threatening or benign meanings were accessed with equal frequency. Results were assessed by use of a breathing focus task that involved categorizing the valence of thought intrusions before and after an instructed worry period and a test of working memory capacity available to participants while worrying. In comparison with the control group, the benign group reported fewer negative thought intrusions (as rated by both participants and an assessor) and less anxiety during the breathing focus task and showed greater residual working memory capacity while worrying. These findings suggest that enhancing access to benign outcomes is an effective method of reducing both the persistence of worry and its detrimental consequences.

Source: “Looking on the bright side: Accessing benign meanings reduces worry.” from Journal of Abnormal Psychology

I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t a replacement for real treatment if you’re experiencing serious problems, but if you find yourself just worrying a little too much, the above might get you back on the right track or at least give you a better understanding of what’s going on.

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