You Can’t Think Your Way Out of Worry

5 min read

As an anxiety specialist, I work with people struggling with a variety of anxious thoughts. Commonly, people have some sense that their fears are inflated, and that they’re unlikely to come true. Frustratingly for them, this awareness isn’t enough to resolve their fears. People try extremely hard to reason through their fears, to rationalize their thoughts, and to dispute them. Often, loved ones try to reassure them they have nothing to worry about. Yet the fears persist.

One of the first things I let these clients know is, “You can’t reason your way out of anxiety.” This statement isn’t 100% true. Sometimes, some research or reassurance from someone we trust can allay our fears. Or we may experience a catastrophic thought and immediately think, “Oh, that’s not true.” But by the time someone comes to see me, they’ve usually tried all sorts of ways of thinking their way out of anxiety without success. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who hadn’t tried to reason their way out of their fears.

My clients are often very hard on themselves about this. They believe they haven’t tried enough. When I share with clients that they can’t think their way out of anxiety, they often express a sense of relief because it confirms what they’ve vaguely suspected. It’s not that they haven’t tried hard enough—it’s that what they’re doing doesn’t work.

The reason we can’t think our way out of anxiety is rooted in worry itself (e.g., Newman & Lliera, 2011). Because worry is primarily verbal, it keeps us in our heads. It is reinforcing because it reduces our experience of the bodily sensations associated with anxiety in the short term. Said more simply: When we worry, we’re less in touch with the physical sensations of our anxiety. Consequently, we feel a bit better and are more inclined to continue worrying.

Although we may initially feel better when we worry, worry keeps us feeling more anxious and depressed over time (McLaughlin, Borkovec, & Sibrava, 2007). There are a few reasons why:

  • Worrying leads to more worrying. While worry may reduce our experience of anxiety or distress in the short term, worry typically begets more worry. Because we feel a little less anxious while we’re actively worrying, we’re more likely to continue worrying. Because we keep worrying, we also continue to feel anxious. The worrying thoughts themselves can become an unwanted experience people try to avoid (Roemer & Orsillo, 2002). This keeps us stuck in a worry feedback loop.

  • We mistake worry for problem-solving. While we’re worrying, we feel as if we’re engaging in problem-solving. However, we’re not coming up with concrete solutions, just cycling through the same thoughts and hoping we figure something out. Sometimes people believe their worry prepares them for a potential disaster. They may superstitiously believe worrying reduces the likelihood that something bad will happen. Studies have found that worrying does neither (e.g., Roemer & Orsillo, 2002).

Our emotions typically have a finite lifespan. Engaging in behaviors such as worry prolongs our distress because worrying keeps us out of contact with our felt experience of anxiety.

There’s a variety of techniques for dealing with patterns of unhelpful worry. Here I’ll focus on the simplest. By “simple,” I don’t mean easy—this takes a lot of practice! However, I think this is a crucial skill for anyone prone to worry.

1. The first step is to be aware that you’re worrying. Once you’re in the present moment, assess whether your worry is productive—whether it will lead to any action. If it’s not productive, you may want to gently disrupt it.

For example, I’m an anxious traveler. When I’m flying and have a layover, I often worry about whether my layover is long enough to make a connecting flight. “Is 50 minutes enough? What if my first flight is late?” This thinking is not helpful because, unless I change my flight, I have no control over whether I miss my layover flight. It can feel seductive, like I’m doing something, but is ultimately unproductive.

2. Notice what you’re feeling in your body. When we’re anxious, we experience it somewhere in our body. Common places include tension or tightness in our chests, stomachs, neck, and/or shoulders.

3. Choose one sensation (e.g., tightness in the chest) and gently rest your attention on that sensation. This process helps to disrupt worry—gets you out of your head—and allows you to experience your anxiety more fully. It can also feel grounding to connect with our bodies. This sensation is a useful anchor point to return to when you inevitably get caught up in your thoughts again. Whenever you notice yourself worrying again, gently bring your attention back to the sensation.

4. Repeat as often as necessary until you gradually stop worrying. Sometimes it may take a matter of minutes—sometimes hours. It’s like pumping the brakes on a runaway car. Keep gently pumping the brakes until the car slows to an acceptable speed.

In summary, one reason we worry is that it tempers our bodily experience of anxiety. That is, we feel less anxious while worrying. Additionally, it can feel as if we’re engaging in problem-solving when we’re not. The more we worry, the more anxious (and sometimes depressed) we feel, and it becomes increasingly difficult to stop.

For these reasons, the sooner we become aware that we’re engaging in unproductive worrying, the sooner we can try to pull ourselves out of it. One way to disrupt worry is to allow ourselves to feel what we’ve been avoiding—the bodily sensations of anxiety. Any emotion has a finite lifespan if we allow it. The more we allow ourselves to feel—rather than try to think our way through anxiety—the sooner it will pass.

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