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Divert Worry With Distraction

Interrupt this negative thought pattern before it harms your mental health.

Key points

  • Constant, daily worry can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
  • Worry emerges when we think about potential problems or negative outcomes in future situations.
  • When we catch this thought pattern, we can redirect and distract our thoughts to feel better.
Ramon Kagie/Unsplash
Source: Ramon Kagie/Unsplash

"Prepare for landing," the pilot's voice crackled over the cabin intercom. I flipped my tray table up. Stowed my book in the backpack under the seat and checked my watch. Right on time. I would easily make my connecting flight.

Then the voice crackled again.

"Sorry folks," said the pilot, "But we've just received word that the airport has closed due to severe electrical storms. We must divert to refuel and wait until they reopen."

Divert? Refuel? Wait, what? My thoughts tangled around each other calculating how long it would take for us to refuel at the other airport, get back in the air, and land in time to make my next flight--if the airport even reopened. How far would I have to schlep my bags from gate to gate? What if I missed the flight? What if...?

Tension striped across my shoulders and I picked at the nail of my index finger. Then, I caught myself.

I wish I had some epiphany or stroke of wisdom, but no. I was cycling into overdrive feeling stressed until I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do. So, why worry? Then I distracted myself, by pulling out my book and reading again.

A Bad Habit

Worrying is like a bad habit. It evolves as we think negative thoughts about a future event. We hear a tragic story on the news and project into “what-if” thinking. “What if that happens to my town?” “What if I lose my job?” “What if I fail the test too?” "What if I miss my plane?"

That kind of rumination can build into anxiety. Some anxiety, like worrying about whether I'll make the next flight, is a normal response to life events, uncertainty, and change. Sometimes worry can even feel productive. We believe that if we think hard enough we'll be able to solve, plan for, or control every outcome.

Yet when we fall into the negative thought pattern, worry obscures our ability to stay calm and clear making it harder for us to cope and respond effectively to the situation. It can prevent us from taking action and limit our ability to manage the present.

There was not enough worry in the world, for example, to give me the power to alter the electrical storms or magically land a jet in time to make my connection. Sounds ludicrous. But there I sat trying to worry my way to solutions for a scenario I didn't control.

My worrying did earn me an upset stomach and stiff shoulders. When worry becomes a regular pattern intensifying into a prolonged state it can lead to anxiety, which is linked to heart disease, chronic stress, and other ailments.

However, emerging research shows that we can break the worry habit.

Six Tips to Break the Worry Pattern

1. Challenge Your Thoughts. Most of what we worry about never comes to pass. When you catch yourself worrying, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself if they're realistic, or if there's any evidence to support them.

2. Interrupt the Pattern. Watch a funny video. Go for a walk. Blast the music and dance. Move your body, do something different, and distract yourself from the worry.

3. Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing or meditation, can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce spiraling thoughts.

4. Avoid Social Media and News. This is the single most important thing I do to manage my worries. It doesn’t mean I’m uninformed—I read the news, but I keep boundaries and take breaks. Yes, difficult things are going on in the world, but there are plenty of good things too. I balance what I take in and what I focus on. Remember, dwelling on what is happening doesn't help and it prevents us from taking the kind of action that could.

5. Create a Space to Hold the Worry. If you are caught up in worried thoughts during the day, write them down. Then, instead of dwelling on them, you can return to your list later to consider them and challenge them. Often, you’ll find that those worries no longer hold the same weight as they once did.

6. Seek Support. Don't hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for support. Talking over your worries can help you gain perspective and reassurance.

7. Focus on what you can control. Often, there isn't a whole lot we can do to mitigate our situations. I had no control over the electrical storms that diverted the flight, but I could control how I responded. Once I interrupted my negative thoughts, I looked for ways to reframe my circumstances. I began thinking about the fun I could have even in a different city and then, I distracted myself by pulling out my pocketbook. That kind of response helped me relax during the remainder of the flight.

When you catch yourself worrying about the future, check your thoughts, scrutinize them, and try these other tips to break the worry habit. Then, you’ll have the clarity and energy needed to manage the things you can control.

In the end, it was good I interrupted my worrisome thoughts because the thing I was worried about never came to pass. All the flights were delayed, including my connection. When I did make it to the airport, my connection was still there and waiting for me. Nothing to worry about.

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