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Overcoming the worry barrier to self-care practices

Anxiety/Stress Management

Here’s how to let “what if” worries go, making way for meaningful activities that feed your soul and align with your values.

Do you ever struggle to commit to self-care practices because incessant worry crops up whenever you consider following through? We’ve all been there.

Whether you’re trying to exercise, eat healthy, get a good night’s sleep, or participate in hobbies, getting started is not easy. For those of us who struggle with anxiety, “what if” thoughts often get in the way, convincing us it’s not worth it. Maybe you’ve decided to try a yoga class, knowing that it will help you feel better physically and emotionally. Yet every time you think about attending, anxious thoughts show up: What if I’m the only new person? What if I can’t do the poses? So instead of going to yoga, you do things to take your mind off the worries—binge-eating, watching Netflix, or scrolling on social media for hours. You wake up the next morning, regretting your actions and not feeling any better. Whether it’s a yoga class, volunteering with a community group, or a few hours with that book you’ve been wanting to read, that self-care activity keeps nagging at you. It’s important to you. It aligns with some value you hold dear, be it physical or mental health, intellectual stimulation, spirituality, connection with community or with friends, or something else. The trick is to move through the discomfort that comes up when you approach the activity—to hear the worried thoughts and to shift your attention away from them, back to the action you value.women volunteering during COVID on the back of a truck with food

This advice may seem obvious now but in the moment of an anxious, self-care avoidance spiral, your brain becomes very good at convincing you otherwise. When triggered, the brain becomes laser-focused on your emotion. It kicks into problem-solving mode, coming up with solutions to make the emotion stop having so much power and go away. Perhaps you’re able to see that the worry is not likely to materialize, but the anxiety remains, and you still have the urge to avoid that feeling. Or perhaps you go into an even more preoccupying worry spiral as the worst-case scenario seems more and more inevitable. 

How does one shift their attention from a sticky worry or emotion? Try breaking down the process into these steps:

  1. Pause: Notice the thought
  2. Reflect: Recognize its impact on your commitment to your meaningful self-care activity. 
  3. Transition: Let it go. 
  4. Refocus and Act: Shift your attention and engage in your meaningful self-care activity

Like any piece of advice, simple solutions are easier said than done. For some ideas on how to circumvent the pitfalls often involved when implementing these steps, keep reading.

Notice the thought

Allow yourself to stop for a moment when a thought that distracts from your self-care enters your mind. Some find that saying to themselves, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that….[insert thought here]” provides distance from the thought, making it less powerful and less controlling. This allows you to become the “noticer” of the thought instead of staying stuck to the thought and the unhelpful narrative it brings along. As the noticer, you become less dominated by the thought’s influence. If saying the “I am noticing” line once doesn’t do the trick, try singing this to yourself. The more you can make the thought become just words, or make it into something new such as a song, the less power its original meaning tends to have.

two young women bikingRecognize the thought’s function

Now that you’ve noticed the thought, you have the opportunity to make a choice about what to do with it from a mindful place rather than a place of pure emotion. Give yourself a moment to consider the thought’s impact. Is it helpful or harmful? Is it a distraction from more meaningful thoughts and actions? If it’s not readily apparent, ask yourself whether the thought represents something that you can do something about while still engaging in actions that are meaningful to you. For instance, if you were about to head out on a long bike ride in the summer heat, and you began to worry that you would not have enough water to stay hydrated, you could pack a water bottle to make sure you have ample hydration. However, most of the time you will find that the worry is actually not a serious one about safety or even anything you can do anything about. If you go to yoga and you realize that you are the only new person there, you won’t be able to change that. You will have to sit with the discomfort of being the only new person. However, along with that discomfort, which is likely to pass, you will get the benefits of yoga. The thought’s function was merely pulling you away from these benefits, into a “what if?” worry spiral that pulls you out of your valued life. 

Let it go

Now that you have recognized how the thought is impacting your life as a whole, you’re well on your way to disconnecting from it. Some of us may find it difficult to take the final step of letting it go because the narrative the thought is attached to is so ingrained in us. If this is the case, it may be helpful to bookmark the thought for later. Perhaps you need to tell yourself that you will come back to it. If you have deep-ceded fears of being an outsider that make it difficult to go through with engaging in new social settings, maybe this is something you want to talk through with someone who knows you well, or with a therapist. It’s also important to keep in mind that as you engage in the meaningful activity, the thought will become less and less sticky and the activity more and more comfortable. It’s quite possible that the thought’s power over your emotions—and the space it occupies in your mind—will fade the more you tell it “Not right now. I have more important things to do. I’m letting you go.” 

Refocus and Engage in your meaningful self-care activity

Now that you’ve let the thought go, it’s go time. As you begin your meaningful activity, focus on what you love and find meaningful about it. You may still notice some worries cropping up, and the discomfort you feared may be present. Don’t panic. This is normal. Remember that discomfort does not take anything away from the fact that you are following through on an action that is meaningful and ultimately fulfilling to you on other levels. Focus on moving through the discomfort, on trusting that you are strong enough to handle it, on re-centering your attention on the present moment, and on engaging in what you love about the activity itself. Ultimately, the more you do this, the more natural it will become, and the more easily you will find yourself incorporating meaningful practices into your life.

If you find yourself getting stuck in worrisome thoughts, unable to do the things that will help you feel better and live a more meaningful life, we can help. Call Serenity Solutions at 267-317-8817 or schedule your free 15-minute phone consultation here to learn more about how anxiety therapy can benefit you.