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The Worry Spiral - tools for taking back control

Lianne Weaver, Beam Development and Training.
September 1, 2021

On top of the usual worries of everyday life, at the moment we have the Covid-19 pandemic to worry us. As restrictions ease, we may find colleagues are worried about returning to the office, or about ongoing hybrid working.

It’s important to note that worrying is completely normal, and actually serves a purpose. Worrying  is your brain’s way of troubleshooting to try to find a solution. Say, for example, you’ve locked yourself out of your house. Your brain will start thinking about whether there’s a spare key, whether you left a window open, or whether you need to call a locksmith. Once you’ve solved the issue at hand, your brain can tick it off the list and you no longer need to worry about it.

The big problem arises when you give your brain a problem which it can’t solve - for example someone else’s health, or global issues. Your brain will resort to its usual troubleshooting tool - worrying - in an attempt to find a solution.

When, as in these examples, the problem is not within your control and you can’t actually do anything about it, you get caught in a worry loop. You go round in circles, perpetuating the worry and often bringing up other concerns which just amplify the first one.

The good news is that there are tools which can help us feel more in control and stop us getting caught in that worry spiral. These techniques can be used to encourage colleagues to take stock of how much they are worrying - especially helpful in these uncertain times.

List all your worries

Sit down on your own and write down every single thing you’re worried about. Usually you notice straight away that a lot of things which are worrying you are not within your control at all.

Sometimes you might also find things on the list which are highly unlikely to happen. The act of writing them down allows you to sit back and reflect on them, which can give you a better sense of perspective.

The next step is to look at the list and work out which worries you can actually influence. This might be things like a phone call you’ve been putting off, or an appointment you need to get around to making. If you channel your attention on to these things, you are encouraging your brain to be proactive, and showing it where its power and control lies. This can help stop your brain trying to solve every single problem on the list.

Now look at the remaining worries on your list - the ones outside of your control. Remind yourself that it’s not within your capability to solve these problems. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care - for example, you may be worried about a loved one’s health, and you absolutely are going to care about that. But you need to remind yourself that you can’t affect it. Bring yourself back every time to that list of worries that you can do something about, and allow your brain to troubleshoot those problems. This will help you to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Tips to alleviate stress and help combat worrying

• Give a loved one, a pet, or even yourself a hug. This produces a chemical in our brains called oxytocin, which is nick-named the ‘love drug’. It’s proven to lower stress levels and to make us feel calmer.

• Take a ten-minute walk in nature. Don’t listen to music or play with your phone. Instead, focus on your senses. Notice what you can see, hear and smell, and feel the ground beneath your feet.

• Spend a few minutes doing some gentle breathing exercises. Take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. This helps us to relax and start to feel calmer.

• When we worry our body can start to get tense. This sends a signal to the brain that we are feeling stress and anxiety. Every day make an effort to do some gentle stretches to release the built-up stress you may be carrying around.

• Worrying and stress can cause us to speed up. To combat this, deliberately do something slowly, whether that’s going for a walk, having a cup of tea and so on. This can help us to slow down and bring our attention to the present moment.

Lianne Weaver is the founder of Beam Development and Training, whose purpose is to help employers and employees take responsibility for their wellbeing. Beam offers CPD-accredited courses on topics including resilience, emotional intelligence, imposter syndrome, and confidence. Currently courses are delivered to corporate and SME clients virtually, as well as via an on-demand Wellbeing Library.

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