Living with uncertainty: how to manage worry thoughts
We all have worry thoughts from time to time, and more so when we are dealing with uncertainty. In evolutionary terms, we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative side of things as a survival mechanism. We have a brain that has a hard time tolerating not knowing, so we try to explain to ourselves what is happening. But inadvertently, we may create hypothetical “What-if scenarios” that soon feel as if they might become a reality (Tierney & Baumeister, 2019).
Some negative thought patterns can lead us to make some thinking errors. For example, when we think in extremes leading to exaggerate or anticipate adverse outcomes. Or when we engage in mind-reading, that is, when we believe that we know what others are thinking about us or the situation (Rossman, 2010). These errors in thinking can distort our thinking, causing us to imagine negative scenarios that cause us concern.
Worry thoughts may seem to be functional in that they can give us a sense that we are doing something to manage the situation. However, they can cause tension and stress depleting our energy. They also occupy our working memory, preventing us from having the capacity to think of alternative scenarios that could help us find solutions.
Sometimes, we notice that our current situation has some similarities with a negative experience in the past. We then assume that the same thing will happen again. For example, when remembering that our last presentation did not go well, when we received negative feedback. Once we identify what thoughts are influencing our feelings, we can choose to react differently.
How can we manage our worry thoughts?
We can learn to manage them by raising our self-awareness. As we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, identify the themes that fuel our concerns, we can learn to tolerate the uncertainty and manage our reactions more effectively.
Being in the present moment: taking the time and bringing our attention to our breathing. It enables us to regulate our body and restore balance.
Taking time to reflect on what are the themes underlying our worry thoughts. View them as a signal that something important is at stake and that we need to pay attention. Is it that we are feeling unsafe? Are we missing information to make a decision? Are we concerned about potential consequences? Once we identify the themes, we can then start to explore what are our priorities.
Focus on what can be controlled: often we focus on the external circumstances which we cannot control. It causes us more tension, and it can lead to feeling stuck. Instead, concentrating on what we can allow us to identify possibilities that can help us to find solutions.
Change perspective: we can interpret thoughts as a way of preparing for a future situation. For example, if we are preparing for an interview or a presentation, we can understand the worry thoughts to identify what is our main concern. Is it that we are worried we might forget the content, or that we might be asked a difficult question? We can then direct our attention to finding ways of dealing with potential obstacles, and thinking about the steps we can take to get things done.
Making notes: writing thoughts down to remind ourselves of what we need to do. Then, we can take some time to reflect on our thoughts, and after a while, return to our notes and view them from a different perspective.
Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.
Tierney, J., & Baumeister,, R.F., (2019) The power of bad and how to overcome it. London: Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books