At this time of the year when the school year starts again and so many things need to be done and organized, I tend to worry quite a lot. What if I will not be able to cope with all the demands of a working mum? What if there will be too much homework for the kids? What if we do not have enough clients for this year? So many needless worries - sometimes keeping me up at night and making me feel bad.
Worrying is very human - after all the need for safety is one of our primary needs. And there is nothing wrong with taking precautions and looking out for potential risks. However, our brain has a tendency to overfocus on the negative and to over-memorize it. Just think of a day where 9 things went well, and one went wrong. Which one will you think over and over again when you go to bed? The constant worrying can create a feeling of helplessness and being trapped and can take you further down into a stream of anxiety and helplessness.
Worrying gives our body the signal that there is something life-threatening
Constant worrying gives our brain the signal that there is a real danger - and because our brain cannot distinguish between actual life-threatening dangers and imagined or projected ones, it gives our body the signal to switch into the survival state - also called the sympathetic state of our central nervous system. Our breathing accelerates, the body tenses up, the blood goes to the bigger organs, digestion and the repairing of our cells is put on hold to get us through this life-threatening situation.
This in turn reinforces the feeling that something is wrong, the negative thinking is reinforced, and you will be flooded by negative emotions. If unchecked, negative thoughts, feelings and body sensations reinforce each other and can lead to a downwards spiral. A feeling of worry can lead to a serious panic attack or strong outburst of anger; making us feel even more miserable afterwards because a feeling of guilt is added to the toxic cocktail. If this state is kept for too long, it can lead to serious health conditions such as burnout, heart attack, anxiety disorders or many others.
How to step out of worrying?
So how can we step out of this negative spiral? How can we deal differently with worry and anxiety? Who would not wish to have that one magical button when you come home after work in the evening and simply switch off your brain to enjoy a peaceful state of mind and be able to rest?
I do not know anybody who has suffered a burnout from too much physical work. It is all this thinking and worrying and the overdrive of our mind which is so exhausting. I have been there myself and remember very well how I was longing for some peace of mind and how the thinking kept me awake all night or woke me up at 4 am, impossible to fall asleep again.
So what can we do? Have you tried to push it away? Try not to think for 10 seconds. Impossible! It only makes it worse. We cannot stop thinking - it is an automatic process. We cannot even influence what we think most of the time.
When I suffered from burnout many years ago, I was desperately looking for ways to find my sleep again. I tried everything: I took medication, started to do sports, tried therapy, massages and food supplements. I even went into a sanatorium in Germany for 3 weeks and got lots of treatments. Nothing helped. I was ready to hug trees, find a shaman - anything, just to find peace of mind and be able to sleep again. The less I slept the more tired I got and the more I worried and could not sleep. I was stuck in a vicious cycle.
Relating differently to thoughts
It was only when I started taking a mindfulness course that I learnt that the thinking is not the problem: it is the way how we relate to it. I learnt that the thinking mind is not the enemy. We can learn to watch the worrying thoughts come and go and internally label them as "worrying" or "thinking". Let them pass through our mind like clouds in the sky.
If we do that, a little distance will appear between us and the thoughts - they become less overwhelming. I saw that there were a lot of such thoughts and many of them were repetitive. It was quite a shock to see that my top 3 thoughts were always the same - like a CD that got stuck and played the same songs repeatedly. I noticed a lot of self-critical thoughts like: "this will never work", "I am hopeless", "I should be a better person".
Seeing this from a little distance had already a liberating effect. I learned to meditate, to focus on my breathing, and when worrying thoughts came, I saw them, sometimes even realized the pull they had on me. I learned not to push them away, but to let them be as they were, without following their story. And I learned not to judge myself when the worrying came back, but instead be kind and compassionate with myself.
Relaxing your body
Negative thoughts bring about tensions in the body and these will in turn reinforce the negativity of our thoughts. this is what s called the body-mind effect. We can learn to use it to our advantage by regularly pausing , tuning into our body and letting go of unnecessary tensions. A bodyscan meditation is an ideal tool to learn to listen to the small signals of your body when it tells you that it is tensing up. You can do this on your own by gently attending to all parts of your body, one by one, starting from the feet or the head, or you can simply follow a guided bodyscan meditation. This is a great way to release unnecessary tension in the body and to learn to mick up small signals from the body before things get out of hand.
Allowing the emotions to be as they are
If negative thoughts had a strong impact on my emotions, I learned to feel them in my body, to allow them like any other emotion because that was part of this moment's experience. I am still traveling on this path and I believe it is a life long journey.
But the good news is that with mindfulness my sleep has improved. It is still a sensitive area in my life and whenever something worries me, I can feel it first in my sleep, but it never stays for more than a couple of days. It's almost like a scar from the burnout, reminding me from to time to slow down when things get too hectic or some area in my life needs particular attention. Mindfulness has taught me to better listen to the signals of my body and to respect them. Therefore, I can now perceive worrying thoughts as just another stress symptom. Rather than reflecting reality, I have come to notice that they mirror how I am doing and if there are many worrying thoughts, it means that I am a little stressed out. I have understood that they are a stress symptom just like neck pain or tensions in the back and that they are automatic. So, I listen to the signals and try to give myself a break - going to bed early, taking a walk in the park, saying "no" to a new assignment or engaging in an activity that gives me energy.
So when the worrying thoughts about the September rush come, I try to tune into my breathing, watch those thoughts come and go, and in addition add a little note of self-care, by using the words: "may I be calm and gentle with myself in the midst of this".
If you like you could try it out with this meditation on letting go of worrying and feeling safe.