“Did I leave the iron on?” How to break the endless worry cycle

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From the niggling fear you’ve left a candle burning although you’re sure you blew it out, to the spiralling thoughts sparked by a blunt Slack message from your boss, it can often feel like our days are merging into an endless stream of worries. Here’s how to break the cycle.

“Don’t worry about it!” If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard those words, I’d be able to afford a very expensive therapist. 

I know this advice comes from a good place, but if it was as simple as ‘just putting it out of my mind’ I would have a brain so clean and spacious you’d find it on The Modern House. Rather than being helpful, those four infuriating words actually make me worry more – that I’m being brushed off, that the things I care about aren’t important, that I’m a failure because I can’t just stop my thoughts from spiralling at will.

I’ve always been a worrier. From as early as I can remember, getting in trouble has been one of my worst fears. I marvel at people who seem to move through the world unencumbered by the fear that they might get told off by a bus driver for pressing the button too many times, or nervousness about what a random person in Tesco thinks of their shopping. People who can make a decision and that’s it; no to-ing, no fro-ing, no freaking out that they might have made the wrong call. 

Considering we humans have up to 60,000 thoughts per day and our brains process 11 million bits of data every second, it’s understandable that we can feel overwhelmed at a time when approximately 9 million of those bits of data involve terrifying news headlines. 

According to Deloitte’s 10th annual millennial and Gen Z survey, more than half of us now feel anxious or stressed ‘all or most of the time’ – and though it’s important to differentiate a low-level hum from the more intense anxiety that can signify Generalised Anxiety Disorder, the fact that so many of us are just existing in a state of worry isn’t something to take lightly. It’s why it feels particularly bewildering when people say ‘just chill out’ or the classic ‘there’s no point worrying about things that are out of your control’. When you’re navigating the fallout of a global pandemic, a cost of living crisis and a planet on fire, how are you supposed to just ignore it?

If this is ringing some (alarm) bells, you’re not alone – and in the interests of proving it, I’ve decided to record everything I worried about within a 24-hour period. While not everyone will be able to relate to my unique ruminations, I’m hopeful that it will at least make you feel a little less alone on your island of brooding. Here goes: 

  • Did I leave the hob on? I know I didn’t. But maybe I should check in case. No, don’t check. It’s off. You know it’s off. But what if it’s on? OK, I’ll quickly just run back and check… Oh, it’s off.
  • I hope that person talking to the postman isn’t being horrible to him. He’s always so nice to everyone.
  • I look like I’m dressed to go to the beach. Maybe I should buy some new shoes so I look like I’m going to the office. Or maybe if I keep talking about how I look like I’ve got dressed for the beach then I can get in there first and my colleagues won’t talk about me.
  • Why didn’t I go to that chicken restaurant I read about when I was in Porto last week? I bet I really missed out and if I’d gone there I’d have had the best meal of the holiday.
  • I think I asked for the wrong birthday present from Mum. I love it, but what if I should have asked for something different?
  • Oh my god, Lily just said I look ‘lovely and summery’, I’m going to get fired for coming to the office looking like I’ve just got off the plane.
  • I shouldn’t have missed that shot in the netball game last night. Are all the girls talking about how I’m the worst player in the team, but they can’t get rid of me because they know how sad I’ll be?
  • Why are the things I worry about so frivolous? There’s a war in Ukraine and the world is fucked. Should I be worrying more about what I’m doing with my life and/or the impending doom?
  • If I reply to Jo’s message about her birthday plans saying ‘Great shout, I haven’t been there for ages’ I’ll look like I’m showing off that I’ve been there before. Or will I look like I’m implying that she’s boring as should pick somewhere new? I could say how good it is and how there are lots of nice pubs around there too for afterwards, but that might make me look bossy.
  • Remember when I made a mean comment about a girl, 15 years ago on Brick Lane, and I thought she might have overheard it? I bet she’s still thinking about what a bitch I am.
  • Who is that calling me? What do they want? Should I pick up? I don’t want to answer, but it might be someone telling me someone is dead. I’ll google the number and see if I can see who it was. I don’t know who it was. Oh no, what if it was important?
  • I really need to sort out my mortgage but it’s so stressful. Is it ok if I just put it off for a bit?
  • Does everyone in the office think I went to the toilet too many times today?
  • I think I’m sat too close to this person on the Tube now that other people have got off. Should I move down a couple of seats? Or then will it look like I think they stink? I’ll just stay here, and pretend I haven’t noticed the carriage is half empty. Or should I move?
  • Why is everything so expensive in this shop? Am I going to be OK? Is everyone going to be OK? How are people supposed to survive when it costs £1.45 for a tin of Heinz Beans now?
  • Does the security guard think I stole something? He looked right at me. I was just putting a broccoli back, but he might think I was trying to steal it. I better smile right at him to make sure he knows I wasn’t.
  • I hope that old man carrying his shopping is alright. I could offer to help him, but I don’t want to patronise him. I’ll walk past and if he looks at me, I’ll speak to him. I hope he’s got someone at home to look after him.
  • I’m sure that couple in the park are laughing at me because I sat down in a slightly weird way.
  • Why am I wasting my life watching Love Island? And why do I have to scroll through my phone at the same time? Why can’t I just be a person who gets absorbed in those serious Scandi thrillers?
  • Am I a good friend? I don’t know if I am at the moment, I haven’t made much time for people.
  • Oh god, why did I go to bed so late again? If I go to sleep right now, then I can still have 6 hours and 30 minutes. That will be enough, won’t it? Oh now it’s only 6 hours. I’m going to be knackered.  

It’s exhausting, right? And I know I’m not the only one whose brain is this noisy, although it can sometimes feel like other people are better at containing or banishing their anxieties. But there is help to be had that’s more useful than a flippant ‘Don’t worry about it’. Ahead, four experts share their advice on how to break the worry cycle. 

The worrier’s toolkit: four experts share their tried and tested methods to help manage a busy mind     

Understand why you worry

Dr Faye Begeti, neurology doctor and neuroscientist (@the_brain_doctor) 

There are two factors at play when considering why some of us are more prone to worrying than others, says Dr Faye Begeti. “The first has to do with genetics: just like our facial features, there is variability in how our brains are built and this includes how we respond to a perceived threat,” she says. “Inside our brains, there are two almond-shaped structures, one on each side, called the amygdala, and they form a key part of our emotional brain. In some people, the amygdala are naturally more activated by threat than others and so they are more prone to worrying.”

The second factor relates to what you’ve been through – things your brain has picked up as triggers. “Studies have shown that having had adverse life experiences, particularly early on in life, can lead to changes in the amount of stress hormones produced by the brain during potentially worrying situations,” Dr Begeti explains.

It’s also important to realise that, on a physiological level, worrying can become a vicious cycle, she says. The ‘executive brain’, or prefrontal cortex, has the job of rationalising the emotions fired up by the amygdala. “It helps regulate worry or anxiety by applying a metaphorical brake. But when you’re in a state of constant anxiety, this constant emotional regulation is draining.”

And a drained brain means a lack of concentration and poor memory, which explains why when you’re feeling anxious you’re more likely to zone out at work or forget a friend’s birthday – thus triggering more worries.

Find your route off the anxiety roundabout

Dr Emma Hepburn, clinical psychologist and author of A Toolkit For Modern Life (@psychologymum) 

Dr Hepburn devised an ‘anxiety roundabout’ to illustrate the alternative paths you can take yourself down when you’re faced with too many obligations, deadlines and general day-to-day worries. It’s a handy tool to have on your camera roll or taped to your computer screen: when you feel the overwhelm coming on, follow the diagram round until you land on a route that feels doable in that moment. 

Here, she suggests mini exercises to keep in your mental toolkit. 

The Anxiety Roundabout, provided by Dr Emma Hepburn

1. Breathing is a simple but powerful technique that engages your parasympathetic nervous system and reduces the anxiety response in your body. Imagine a circle slowly expanding and then contracting. As it contracts, breathe in slowly, as it expands, breathe out.

2. If you feel the worry rising as you sit in a Zoom waiting room before an important presentation, draw a square on your notepad and breathe in for four seconds as you trace one side of the square, then breathe out as you move on to the next side – and so on.

3. Waking up at 3am worrying about how you’re going to get through your mental to-do list? Try the ‘paradoxical intent’ technique, where you lie with your eyes closed but actively tell yourself not to fall asleep. There’s evidence the switch in focus works for some people, helping you relax.

4. Stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention to the sounds in your body. Then sounds in your room. Then sounds in the house. Then sounds outside the house. Then reverse the process until your mind feels quieter.

5. If you find yourself spiralling, try the ‘5,4,3,2,1’ method to ground yourself. Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two you can smell and one you can taste.

6. Worrying quite literally narrows your focus. Widen your field of vision by shifting your downward gaze into a small phone screen or laptop to looking up at a wide landscape and you’ll feel the difference instantly. 

What not to say to a worrier

Jodie Cariss, therapist, founder of high street therapy service Self Space and author of How To Grow Through What You Go Through

  • “Ah you worry too much, just chill out.”
  • “It could be worse…”
  • “Pull yourself together, tomorrow is a new day”
  • “It’s not that big of a deal, is it?”
  • “Forget about it and come and get drunk with me.”
  • “You’ve got so much going for you, this is just a blip.”
  • “You’re no fun anymore, you’re always moaning.”
  • “At least you have a good job/partner/nice flat/etc.”
  • “You think you’ve got it bad? Listen to my day…”
  • “I think you need to man up a bit.”
  • “Shall I call an ambulance?” 

If you’re on the receiving end of a friend’s worries or can see they’re losing control, Cariss recommends asking questions without being critical and trying not to rush into solving or fixing things. “Avoid any toxic positivity and instead use phrases like, ‘I’m wondering how I can best support you…’ or ‘What might you need from me?’ Rather than jumping in with ‘Oh that’s happened to me’, validate their feelings with ‘That must be horrible/shitty/upsetting, I’m sorry and I’m here for you.’ 

How to tell when it’s more than a worry

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic 

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

In the UK, the NHS estimates that 5% of the population are suffering with general anxiety disorder at any one time. “Everyday worries can shift into an anxiety disorder when they take over a significant proportion of our time and start to interfere in our day-to-day life,’ says Dr Touroni. 

“It’s important to be able to distinguish between real events and hypothetical events. The first is a concern that is current and has the potential to be solved: for example, worrying about the outcome of an argument with your partner. Hypothetical worries are quite different and tend to begin with the words ‘what if?’ For example, ‘What if I say the wrong thing and everyone thinks I’m stupid?’ This is known as catastrophising, and when these spirals dominate your day you may have crossed the line into a more serious mental health problem. At this point, it’s important to seek the appropriate support from a psychologist.” 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

One in every 50 people is living with obsessive compulsive disorder. “It’s a misconception that simply being hyper-organised or meticulous in the things you do correlates with OCD,” says Dr Tourini. “However, if your urge to get things ‘just right’ is a response to a strong feeling of fear or distress and you feel like you to do it – otherwise you won’t be able to go on with your day – then it could be a sign of OCD.” 

Dr Tourini recommends keeping an eye out for three red flags that could signal your worrying has tipped into something more serious:

  1. Feeling wound-up and on edge a lot of the time
  2. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up early in the morning and being unable to get back to sleep
  3. Unexplained physical symptoms such as an upset stomach, muscle aches and pains, headaches and heavy fatigue 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In a crisis, call 999.

Lead image: Getty

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