Why we worry about calamity and crisis (and how to stop.)

This is the second in my series of blog posts on cognitive bias and how to master your messy mind.

Worry will not change the outcome.
Yet we do it anyway. It makes no sense.

This is your crazy brain at work.

Worry is a natural response to thinking about the future and anticipating events. Some of us are wired up to do it more than others. When we worry excessively and uncontrollably we're heading into anxiety territory and that needs professional support.

Most of us have manageable worries though - and worry is not always bad. It's often useful. We need to worry about the implications of not strapping our kids into their car seats. We should worry enough about our safety to look before we cross the road. A degree of worry keeps us safe. It prompts us to take action.

But what about the crazy, needless worry? 

Every once in a while I catch myself worrying about whether my kids will survive adolescence. Or that I will develop a debilitating illness. Or that the house will be burgled while we're away on holiday.

These are things I can't control - but I worry about them anyway. It serves no purpose, other than to make me miserable.

I know I'm not alone in this. We are all susceptible to an overactive imagination, especially when we wake in the early hours of the morning or when life feels especially out of our control.

Why do we waste time with these worries?

Blame your brain. 

A common cognitive bias is the 'neglect of probability bias'. It’s the tendency to disregard the likelihood of an event taking place when a situation is uncertain.

I don't know what the future looks like for my kids, so my brain jumps to the worst case scenario. They could die in a car crash! They might get cancer. They could live a life of misery and heartache.

My brain neglects the probable outcome - that they'll go on to live long, happy, functional lives - in favour of more distressing and dramatic outcomes.

Why? Because it’s quick and easy to imagine an event and how we'd feel if it happened. Removing emotion and calculating likelihood takes mental effort. You brain likes short cuts so it jumps to what comes more easily.

We feel before we think. That's human.

The more serious the threat and the more emotional the topic, the less reassuring logic and reasoning seems to us. Don't give me statistics when I'm watching footage of a terrorist attack. I'm thinking of every person I know who might be nearby and worrying about their safety. 

When our brains perceive risk our emotions are not easily convinced otherwise.

How to worry less

Our neglect of probability bias and jumping to drama over logic is part of being human. It's normal. It's not a problem - unless it is. If you find yourself overwhelmed by worry about the future and events you can't control here are some tips:

  1. Pay attention. Worry can be so habitual that we don't notice when we're doing it. Our feelings can give us insight into our thoughts. If you're feeling stressed and anxious, pay attention to your thoughts. What are you thinking about? Is it an event you can control? If not, distract yourself with something else and let it go.
  2. Don't believe everything you think. Thinking it doesn't make it real. Life is full of uncertainty and worrying about an event won't change the likelihood of it occurring. When we lean into uncertainty we free ourselves to live life more fully. 
  3. Stay in the moment and choose gratitude. Focus on the here to free yourself from fear. When you catch yourself worrying about something you can't control, shake it off, take a deep breath, open your eyes and your heart to the beauty around you. Appreciate the sun, the sky, nature, your loved ones and the fact that everything is okay in this moment, right now. 
onwards and upwards (Small) (Custom).png