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The Habit of Worry

Each time we recall a situation from the past or anticipate a scenario of the future, we experience an imagined scene, as if it were really happening. Sometimes we start judging and reacting to these mental images playing out in our mind what we could have done differently or how to avoid an unwanted outcome. This is worry.

Say you’re replaying a memory of a fun visit with a friend. As you reminisce about the visit, your mind fixates on a small detail and thinks, “Maybe that was an insensitive thing to say, what if she was offended?” Soon, you forget all about the good time you had, and your mind is filled with worries about the interaction.

If we worry a lot, it can become a habit. Our entire view of life can become distorted by a negativity bias, a tendency to focus on what might be wrong with almost any scenario. So how can our mindfulness practice counteract the habit of worry?

To start, it helps to notice the connection between three kinds of experience. The first, is mental imagery of events from the past or future. Second, are your anxious thoughts about these events. And third, is bodily sensations of anxiety or agitation.

In the example of visiting with a friend, you might start by noticing that you are replaying the image of your friend’s upset facial expression. And then dwelling on self-critical anxious thoughts about the situation. The next step is to get out of your mind and look to what you are experiencing in your body. Often, we stay focused on images and thoughts, but miss the emotions in our body.

As we start to bring clear, non-reactive awareness to all three elements, a magical thing starts to happen. Noticing the agitated feelings of your body won’t make them instantly disappear, but it lessens their effect. Seeing anxiety clearly as anxiety, means it’s less likely to keep feeling catastrophic scenarios in your mind. An anxious thought or scary image held with mindfulness may not disappear, but it may trigger a less negative feeling in your body.

In this way, your mindfulness practice gradually dampens the feedback loop and stops worry from taking root as a habit.

As Rishika Jain writes, “Worries and tensions are like birds, we cannot stop them from flying near us, but we can certainly stop them from making a nest in our mind.”

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