As a psychiatrist, I've treated many people with very severe anxiety problems. There are many of us, though, without a clinical anxiety disorder who still struggle with daily worries.
We live in a culture that values success, achievement, and hard work. So we set bigger goals for ourselves and take on more responsibilities. But with this comes more things to keep track of, and more stress.
We make the mistake of thinking that once we solve whatever problem is on our mind, the worries will go away. What I've observed, though, in patients (and myself!) is that when you're in the habit of worrying, if one worry leaves another will quickly pop up in its place.
We get in the habit of thinking and ruminating about everything we have to do and every possible contingency of things that could go wrong. So unsurprisingly, when it's time to relax, our brains won't cooperate.
One of the most common sleep complaints I hear is, "I'm so tired at night but I just can't shut my mind off"¦"
So what can we do to keep ourselves sane in a busy and hectic world?
The Technique: Create Meditation Mountains & Worry Wells
Let's use the example of a person named Bob. Bob wakes up and the first place his mind goes is to all the things he needs to do that day. He feels a constant state of tension throughout the day as more responsibilities get piled onto him.
No matter how much he crosses off his to-do list, it seems to keep growing and growing. When Bob gets home from work, he continues to ruminate about his day, even though he's not doing anything productive to solve his problems. And when it comes time to go to bed, he can't fall asleep because he's worrying about everything he may have forgotten to do.
If you were to track the anxiety level of the Bob over the course of the day, here's what it would look like:
Bob experiences a constant, low level of anxiety throughout the day. He's so used to feeling anxious that he doesn't know how to calm his mind when it's time to relax or go to sleep.
Now let's look at another fictional example, Susie. Susie has learned the "Meditation Mountain and Worry Well" technique and has learned to focus her relaxing and worrying into discrete periods of time.
When she first wakes up, she gives herself 20 minutes to focus on all of her worries. She really indulges in it. She does it productively, though, and writes every worry that's on her mind onto a piece of paper.
Then in the last five minutes, she scrutinizes the list and strategizes about what she can do to address the biggest problems. She puts 3-4 items on her to do list.
When the "worry well" is over, she stops focusing on her worries and meditates for 20 minutes. She sits in a comfortable position and focuses her attention on a neutral object, like the breath or sounds in the environment. When she notices her mind getting pulled back to her worries, she redirects her attention back to the breath.
After meditating, she feels calmer and more at ease, and she has a to-do list that tells her what the most important tasks she needs to get done that day are.
If worries start to creep up later in the day, she does the exercise again. She spends 20 minutes focusing on all of her worries, and then 20 minutes meditating. When it's time for Susie to go to bed, she has had so much practice at shifting from worrying to relaxing that she is able to shut her worrying mind off and fall asleep without a problem.
If you were to track Susie's anxiety level over the course of the day, here's what it would look like:
How you can implement the Meditation Mountain & Worry Well technique for yourself
1. Schedule meditation mountains and worry wells into your day. Make sure you have time scheduled to do the exercise, and decide how many times a day you will do it. A good place to start is once in the morning and once in the evening. If you are very anxious, you might want to schedule it four or five times a day.
2. During your "worry well" time, write down all the worries on your mind. During this period you actually do not want to be distracted by positive or relaxing thoughts. Focus on the worries. Divide a piece of paper into two columns and free-write your worries in the left column for the first 15 minutes.
Then, in the last five minutes, review the list and write in the right column ways you could solve or address each specific problem. Take a highlighter and highlight the most important 3-4 items. Put these on your to-do list.
3. Immediately after your "worry well" ends, start your "meditation mountain." Do a relaxation exercise for 20 minutes. Meditation is one option but it's not the only one. A few other options are:
- Progressive muscle relaxation.
- Breathing exercises.
- Light physical exercise (if you find this relaxing).
- A relaxing activity, like listening to music, taking a bath, reading a novel, etc.
Choose whichever relaxation exercise most resonates with you. The most important part is that this is a time when you are not allowed to worry. If you feel worries creeping into your mind, redirect your attention back to the exercise. You will get better at this with practice.
Why this technique works so well
There are several reasons why this technique helps you deal with your worries in a healthier way:
1. You learn to "phase shift" between worrying and relaxing. You learn to be able to turn your worries on and off, so you can focus on problems when you need to, and relax when you want to.
2. Instead of worrying a little bit all day without relief, you consolidate your worrying into discrete, compact periods of time. You don't have anxiety plaguing you constantly throughout your day.
3. You train yourself to relax! This is so important. We practice worrying all the time, but we don't practice relaxing. As Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do."
Now get out there and start practicing!
Like most things, this exercise gets easier the more you do it. At first your mind will want to keep pulling you back to your worries, so you need to practice bringing it back, over and over.
What about you? I'd love to hear your ideas and strategies in the comments for how you keep your worries from taking over. And if you try the exercise, let me know how it goes!