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Why worrying doesn’t work — and what to do instead

By The Health News Team | May 23, 2024
Pensive woman looking out the window

Can you recall a time when worrying benefited you?

We all worry, and that’s OK. It’s fine to be aware and concerned about the welfare of others, yourself and the world in general. But constant worrying can drain us of joy, impact our emotions and even affect our health— sometimes leading to depression and anxiety.

Worry is related to needing to feel in control of things. It can also be perceived as being prepared. For instance, you may think to yourself, “If I think about the worst-case scenario, then I will be prepared for it when it happens.”

The problem with this type of thinking is that it leads to an expectation that bad things will happen, which can negatively affect your health. Worrying can lead to higher levels of stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase anxiety.

“If we continue to go down the worry rabbit hole, we also begin to lose sleep,” says Mary Heineke, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital for Behavioral Health.

“Rumination can set in, as well as overeating, drinking too much and feeling more fearful than safe. These are all signs of clinical anxiety.”

Start by letting go

Trying to go “cold turkey” to turn off a worrying mind isn’t easy. It takes time, intention and practice.

“Start by looking at the control you do have in life,” says Heineke. “You may feel that you do not have much that you are in control of. But actually, we have a lot of control over ourselves, which includes how we think about our life in general.”

Heineke suggests that you imagine holding a hula hoop and looking through the opening. “If you were to stand in the middle and reach your arms out around the circle, you can see the extent of the area of life you actually have control over,” she says. “On the other side of that hula hoop is everything else.”

Recognizing our need for control and its role in our life is the first step toward moving away from worry and becoming more open to change, Heineke says. She suggests practicing radical acceptance, which is the ability to accept situations that are outside of our control without judging them. This can help reduce suffering caused by the situation.

“Radical acceptance is a tool to help find peace in a world we have little control, or even influence, over,” says Heineke. “Radical acceptance is not liking or appreciating what's happening. Rather, it is understanding and accepting the reality of a situation we have no control over. To have more peace and joy in life, consider letting go of the need to have control outside your hula hoop.”

Finding joy

According to Heineke, it’s important to find nuggets of joy in your life, no matter the circumstances. To reduce the amount you worry, she recommends the following:


Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness means being fully present and aware of where we are, how we are feeling and what we’re doing. It helps us avoid feeling overwhelmed by, and reactive to, what is happening in our lives. It can be as easy as doing breathing exercises to start a daily mindfulness practice or using your senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste — to notice the things around you.


Have some GRAPES.

GRAPES stands for gratitude, rest, accomplishment, pleasure, exercise and socialization.

  • Gratitude. No matter how your day is going, find ways to appreciate each day — even the little things can make a big difference in how we feel and see life.

  • Relaxation. Life is busy, but it’s essential to make time for relaxing activities, which can be medicine for your mind.

  • Accomplishment. Rather than looking at all the things that could go wrong or went wrong, try to think of at least one thing in your day that you are proud you accomplished.

  • Pleasure. Take time to have fun and engage in healthy activities that bring you pleasure, such as listening to music, going for a walk, creating art or playing a game.

  • Exercise. Being physically active builds muscle and flexibility, keeps your heart healthy and is good for your mind. It stimulates the brain’s reward centers, which affect pleasure and motivation and help you maintain hope.

  • Socialization. Connecting with other people who are supportive and have a positive outlook on life can lift your spirits and provide a different perspective on tough circumstances.


Keep a journal.

Journaling is a great resource for expressing thoughts and feelings without interruption or judgement. Having time to write thoughts freely can give you insight into problems; improve creativity; help you track moods and distressing events so you can let go of rumination and worry; and allow you to review whether you are making the same choices and expecting different results.


Help others.

Sometimes the answer to “What will make me happy?” is found in bringing happiness to others. Research has shown that when we help other people, our happiness tends to increase. Consider volunteering in your community. The positive impact you will have on those you help can boost self-esteem and instill a more hopeful outlook on life.

“Learning to let go of worry will take time and self-compassion,” says Heineke. “There is no magic potion or pill to worry less. By practicing some of these tips, you will start your way to a worry-less journey and a life filled with more joy, confidence and hope.”

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Mary Heineke


Mary Heineke is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital for Behavioral Health.

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