Do you worry a lot? Chances are you do. In our business world there are a multitude of threats, pressures and uncertainties. Leaders and managers have to act within an economic VUCA environment, a web of stakeholders, strategies, performance targets, individual team members and superiors.

And it doesn’t stop here. Many take their worries home, and their minds keep churning the same stressful thoughts over and over again. It’s among the top 10 of challenges that my clients tell me about in coaching conversations.

According to Evolutionary Psychologists our stress response helped our ancestors survive. Consequently, it kicks in rapidly to anything that even faintly resembles a threat.

Another amazing survival tool of our minds is their ability to project a future, and to recount a past. Put differently, our minds can simulate a virtual reality, and evaluate different scenarios.

However, in our modern world both features – stress and fantasy – can turn against us. The issue is, that our emotions respond to virtual simulation the same way they would in a real life situation.

You can test this, by imagining that you are cutting open a lemon, and then taking big, juicy bites right into the sour-tasting flesh. You will start salivating – your body responds to the mental simulation as if it was the real thing.

The same happens when we worry, but instead of saliva our “stress juices” such as cortisol begin to flow. Now our minds repeat the same thoughts over and over again, hoping for an unexpected resolution – only it never comes; we remain passive, static and as the worrying continues, so does the stress response.

In the long term, this can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, depression and physical symptoms.1, 2

Curiously, all this time spent thinking about a problem rarely contributes to a solution. Stress actually reduces our ability to use our higher thinking functions. Most of us have experienced this dramatically by drawing a blank during an exam, or while giving a presentation.3

By finding ways to stop worrying about an issue – and as a consequence reduce our stress-levels – we increase our effectiveness and are more likely to take constructive action.

Here are three strategies with supporting empirical evidence that help overcoming ruminating on stressful thoughts:

1)   Have worry meetings

Instead of worrying continuously throughout the day, you can arrange a “worry meeting” with yourself and only worry at a certain time or at a certain place. Rather than letting stressful thoughts take over your life, reserve specific time slots or places when you allow yourself to indulge in negativity; for example daily between 6 and 5 pm, or only on Sundays, or only when brushing your teeth etc.

When worries come up at random times during the day, you can park them and safe them for later. This keeps your day free from unhelpful mental intrusions. The trick here is, that you don’t repress the impulse but channel it constructively.

2)   Do a worry fast

If you have been worrying for the past 10, 20 or 30 years, you won’t miss out on much by taking 2 weeks off. Consider it as a holiday from yourself and commit to avoiding any form of negative rumination for a set amount of time. This radical shift can create a surprisingly fresh perspective. When you find yourself slipping back into old worry habits you can distract yourself by focusing on your breathing, or taking walks, watching TV, reading a book or engaging in social interactions.

3)   Worry differently

Repetitive thoughts are familiar to us. They can become like (seemingly) good friends that we cling on to. By retaining the thoughts, but changing an aspect of their expression you can induce profound positive changes indirectly:

    1. Blow the problem completely out of proportion. Exaggerate your worries so much that they become obscure and funny.
    2. Worry with a different voice in your head than you normally would.
    3. Worry faster – or slower.
    4. Have a worry rant – worry and complain as much as you can for 5-10 minutes. Do it out loud! (make sure the wrong person isn’t listening in)

Even though none of these solutions tackle the underlying issues, they can create more clarity so that solutions and options become easier accessible. They also save mental energy and can improve our general mood and outlook on life.

© Ragnar Speicher