Do yourself (and your health) a favor and stop obsessing over things you can’t control. I know it’s far easier said than done. Don’t fret though; I’ll give you some tips to make it just a little bit easier. First, though, let’s talk about the difference between health worry and obsessing.
Difference Between Healthy Worry and Obsession
While experts agree that some worrying can actually be beneficial to your health, there’s a fine line between mild helpful worry and obsession. Let’s take current events for example. If we weren’t at least a little worried about our health (and that of others), we’d ignore what experts and scientists tell us. That, in turn, would put more lives in jeopardy. So yes, a little worrying does help save lives, our own included.
However, many of us have blown way past “a little worrying” and into “full-blown obsession” territory. There’s a big difference between watching the nightly news and keeping your TV tuned to a news channel every waking moment. Between taking your temperature when you feel like you have a cold or stuffy nose and taking it every hour on the hour. Between staying AT home and staying IN your home 24/7. You get the point, right?
Obsessing over things you can’t control is bad for your health
Again, some worrying is normal, healthy, and even beneficial. Obsessively worrying, on the other hand, has no benefits. In fact, it not only affects your mental health, but it can cause significant harm to your physical well-being as well. For example, it can lead to headaches, muscle pain, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and even heart problems.
Worrying even impacts your “social health,” according to a 2011 Case Western Reserve University study. Researchers found that “worrying can be so intrusive and obsessive that it interferes in a person’s life and endangers the health of social relationships.”
So, how do you stop obsessing over things you can’t control, especially when one of those things is the way you feel? Let’s discuss.
How to Stop Obsessing Over Things You Can’t Control
I have been SO anxious lately, and last week was the worst. This week, though, I decided to just go out for a long walk to help get over this feeling of being stuck at home. One thought led to another, and I realized that we really do need to find a way to stop obsessing over things we can’t control.
See, life is positively overflowing with things out of our control. In fact, our own actions and reactions are pretty much the only thing we do have complete power over. Note that I said reaction, not emotions. We can’t always control how we feel, but we can decide how we allow those feelings -including worry- to make us act.
So, how do we do that? Here are some tips that have helped me, as well as a few from experts.
1. Figure out what you can control
Before you can stop obsessing over things you can’t control, you need to figure out what you actually can do something about. Remember, you have total say over your own actions and reactions, but zero say over that of others. Let’s try an example that I think we can all relate to, like slow drivers! Remind yourself that while you can’t make the car in front of you go faster, you can make yourself react with patience and understanding instead of giving in to road rage.
As the Dalai Lama said, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
2. Schedule your worrying
One of my favorite tips from psychologists is to schedule in time to worry. Choose a set amount of time- maybe half an hour- then actually write it down on your planner. When that time comes, you get only the scheduled block of time to worry about things you can’t control. Then, you have to let it go. Just try not to schedule it right before bedtime. Speaking of…
3. Don’t obsess during bedtime
Make worrying totally off-limits during bedtime. If you find your mind drifting to worries, forcefully pull it back and focus on happy things instead. Take a mental trip down memory lane, for example. Just choose a good memory, then replay it in your mind. Or maybe imagine your dream home and how you’d decorate it.
4. Get the “worst-case scenario” over with in your mind
This one comes from a friend who got it from her therapist. Go ahead and use your “worry time” to imagine the absolute worst-case scenario. Play it out in your mind. React to it, cry over it, and decide how you’d handle it. Then, let it go. Later, when that worry pops up again, remind yourself that you’ve already planned for the absolute worst thing that can happen, so you can definitely handle anything less than that.
5. Focus on the positive
I know it sounds a bit Mary Sunshine, but outside your worrying time, stick to focusing on the positive. Rather than thinking about how helpless you feel, do things to help others. Instead of starting your morning with the bad news, read uplifting and happy news first. Take a walk and enjoy the sunshine. Remind yourself that right now you’re healthy, happy, and whole. No one knows what tomorrow brings, so all we can do is focus on what’s good today.
6. Strategically choose relaxation over worrying
A 2019 Penn State study found that anxious people “strategically” choose worrying over relaxing. According to the study, “Relaxing is supposed to be good for the body and soul, but people with anxiety may actively resist relaxation and continue worrying to avoid a large jump in anxiety if something bad does happen, according to new research.”
So, if we can strategically choose to prioritize our worries then we can also make a very conscious decision to prioritize relaxation. If you can’t quite reach the point where you can follow the second tip and push your worries off until a specific time, then try the opposite. Schedule in time where you’re absolutely, positively forbidden from worrying about anything.
7. Distract your mind
If you can’t stop yourself from worrying, find something else to completely occupy your mind. I like to go for a walk and just focus entirely on my surroundings. However, when you’re really stressed out, it’s hard to keep that busy brain of yours from focusing on worries during something like a walk or meditation. In that case, go ahead and binge your favorite TV show or watch movies.
8. Try the rubber band method
This is another expert tip on how to stop obsessing. First, put a rubber band around your wrist. You want it to be snug, but obviously not so snug that it cuts off your circulation! Then, when you find yourself worrying about things you can’t control right now, snap the rubber band against your skin. Don’t do it hard enough to cause yourself pain, though. Just enough so that it acts as a physical reminder that you’re not supposed to be worrying.
9. Keep a “worry journal”
As HelpGuide says, “writing down your thoughts—on a pad or on your phone or computer—is much harder work than simply thinking them, so your worries are more likely to lose their power.” I think sometimes we just need to get things out of our heads and give them the spotlight that they’re demanding. You don’t have to keep a whole big, fancy pen-and-paper journal if that’s not your thing, though. It can be an online journal (private or public, up to you), an app on your phone, or even a bunch of sticky notes. Whatever works for you!
10. Know when to ask for help
If you’re unable to conquer your excessive or obsessive worries no matter how hard you try, then consider seeking professional help. Honestly, everyone on the planet can benefit from talking to a therapist. We all need one totally impartial and unbiased person in our lives that we can talk to about anything without fear of judgment. But if your obsessive thoughts are disrupting your life or altering your behavior, then it’s especially important to reach out to someone with experience in dealing with it.
I’ll leave you with one last quote. George Burns once said, “If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.” The fact that he lived to see his 100th birthday makes him a pretty reliable source on the secret of living a long life. 😀
Remember, the only thing you can control is yourself. Decide that you’ll stop obsessing over things you can’t control and stick to that decision. Your mind and body will thank you.