Two Science-Backed Ways to Ease a Worried Mind

Our brains are wired to worry. Here’s what the research says about how to mindfully calm your worried mind.

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“Am I good enough?” “Am I parenting right?” “Why am I still single?” “Do people like me?” “Am I doing enough at work?”

This is what it sounds like when our worrying mind takes over. For many of us, these thoughts can fill up the unconscious background of daily life. They’re a lot like a soundtrack, an unnoticed but powerful emotional backdrop proclaiming what could go wrong, how things might not work out, and of all the horrible things that could happen.

From an evolutionary perspective, this ordinary worrying habit of the mind makes complete sense. If the goal is to avoid getting eaten by a predator (which it was thousands of years ago), then living in a state of continuous vigilance and low-grade anxiety is an adaptive trait, essential for survival. 

Of course, we no longer live in prehistoric times. The bulk of our worries have nothing to do with an unexpected saber tooth tiger attack. Instead, we have the uniquely modern luxury of worrying about things like the balance in our bank accounts, the fact that we weren’t included in a dinner party invite, or the fear that other people might not see us as constantly charming, impressive, and, well, even mindful.

This touches on a curious paradox of the modern human condition: even though most of us are safe, well-fed, and comfortable, we worry about future events, deadlines, and logistics as though our very existence were at risk.

Why We Worry

Long before modern neuroscience research, Mark Twain pointed toward the irrationality of this habit. “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life,” he declared, “most of which never happened.” Recent research on worry validates Twain’s wise observation. 

In a 2019 study at Penn State University, for instance, researchers examined the worries of patients with generalized anxiety disorder. They arrived at two striking conclusions: First, they found that 91 percent of the worries that tormented these patients never came true. Second, they found that simply noticing this fact – the fact that their worries rested mostly on make-believe – helped release people’s worry. 

But this raises a question: If the vast majority of our worries will never come true, then why do so many of us become seduced by this painful mental habit? If it’s so clearly irrational and counterproductive, why can’t we just put an end to this habit once and for all?

If the vast majority of our worries will never come true, then why do so many of us become seduced by this painful mental habit?

One of the answers offered by psychologists is that worry acts as a buffer against more intense negative emotions. It sounds crazy but here’s how it works: Imagine you’re about to give a speech in front of a large audience. In the hours before the event, you fear the fear you might experience once you walk on stage. So you start to worry. And while all of this worrying isn’t pleasant, it’s a way to gear up for this future state of discomfort. 

Worry, in other words, is like a negative emotional warm-up routine. It’s how your mind and body prepare for even greater fear and unease.

This kind of “preparation” worry can even have an upside. Researchers at UC Riverside have shown that worry can both motivate us and serve as an emotional buffer. Your worry about the speech, for example, might motivate you to practice it over and over, leaving you better prepared for the big moment when you walk on stage. 

Your worries about the speech also set up a largely positive and pleasurable experience that comes once the wait is finally over and you deliver the speech. The discomfort of worry, in other words, brings you down, which makes the euphoric experience of successfully delivering that dreaded speech all the more pleasurable. 

Two Science-Backed Ways to Ease a Worried Mind

Given that many of us are wired to worry, trying to get rid of or overcome worry is both unrealistic and counterproductive. The craving to eradicate worry, after all, only amplifies the suffering that comes from these looping thoughts whether we like it or not.

The science of worry, by contrast, offers a more skillful approach: Don’t try to get rid of worry. See if you can transform it instead. Recent research out of Case Western University points to two powerful, mindfulness-based, tools for doing just that.

1) Mindful Worrying: The first approach is to bring mindful attention to worrying. The key to this practice is to Notice-Shift-Rewire. The first step is to Notice. Notice that your mind has slipped into this seductive state. Once you Notice, you can then Shift your mind state by bringing your attention to worrying itself. It’s a shift from aversion to investigation – from fighting it or checking out to seeing your worries as thought forms arising in the present moment. The final step is to Rewire – to take just 15 seconds to stay with and savor this shift in perception.

The research shows that this simple shift leads to the experience of “decentering” – experiencing a slight disidentification with your worried mind. It’s subtle but this sense of space between you and your worries helps release the grip of worry.  You begin to see these “worry thoughts” simply as thoughts, and you can watch them come and go from a place of greater peacefulness and ease.

2) Practicing Gratitude: A second science-backed approach to transforming worry is grounded in the practice of gratitude. Unlike mindful worrying, this technique involves a more active response to worries. At its core, the practice is to notice when you’re caught in worry and then shift by bringing your attention to some present-moment source of joy or gratitude. 

When you’re worried about a difficult day ahead, for instance, notice your worried thoughts.  Then shift your attention toward what you’re grateful for right now – the morning light, a delicious breakfast, the taste of your latte. Finally, rewire by savoring the experience of gratitude for just a few seconds.

The research shows that both of these practices are powerful salves for a worried mind. Whichever practice you pursue, it’s worth remembering that the key is awareness. The ability to choose to Notice-Shift-Rewire is a proven skillful means for integrating mindfulness practice into your daily life. 

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