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How to Stop Worrying

Can't stop worrying? Try these mental exercises to stop those anxious thoughts.

To some extent, most of us are worriers. We worry about our families, our jobs and, of course, these days we worry about money. But what if we could detach ourselves from that worry, and instead of experience it, just observe it? Would that make the worry go away?

Many practitioners of yoga and meditation, including me, say yes.

In my experience, it is possible to significantly reduce worry by simply watching your mind with no commentary. Try it right now: Take a full breath in, release it slowly, take another breath, release that one even more slowly. Focus on your breathing, and as thoughts enter your mind, just observe them as though you were a completely impartial, but still curious, witness. 

Within minutes your thoughts should tend to slow or even stop for a few seconds. And in those moments you may get a glimpse of what the yogis call “moksha,” or liberation.

Fostering this kind of “time out" is the real goal of meditative practices such as yoga, which bring you closer to the body and the breath for 90 minutes or so, and away from the ever-processing intellect so you get a chance to rest and reboot.

Really, it is all about making room for something besides the constant chatter of the thinking mind. When we are kept awake at night by thoughts, what is really happening? A thought comes and you respond by analyzing the content of that thought, which entails judging it or reacting to it in some way, and the same happens with the next thought and on and on it goes.

The only way out is in shifting your focus away from the conversation, as when you remove yourself from an argument by stepping back from it and merely witnessing what others are saying. Unfortunately, most of us have gotten used to doing just the opposite. We keep the conversations in our heads going on without end, constantly relating to one and then the other. To combat those habits, here are four mental practices I often use with my yoga students:

1. Spend some time impartially watching the mind at work. This is way easier than it sounds. You can think of this exercise as looking at a door and waiting for someone to come walking in through it. Just as you have no idea what’s going to come walking through this door, you really have no idea what is going to come out of your brain in the next moment or two, correct? Congratulations! You have just discovered a new way of perceiving the mind. You’ve learned your mind is not “you.” It is something you can observe from a distance. Go ahead and just observe, then, and when you start having a conversation with the contents of your mind, go back to waiting for that stranger to walk through the door.

2. When you watch the thinker, don’t comment or judge. When you experimented with the exercise described above, at some point you may have wondered whether you were doing it properly. Maybe you even said to yourself, “Darn, I know some people can master this kind of thing, why not me?” That’s a judgment. Or, you might have told yourself, “I’m managing to do this quite well,” which is another judgment.

Focusing on these kinds of observations draws you back into relating directly to your mind. Just observe them. Remember, the point is to stand away from the thoughts, to remain in the seat of the watcher. Whatever walks through that door of the mind, particularly when it relates to the act of observation itself, you simply to say to it, “No big deal. Let’s have the next one.”

3. Don’t try to push thoughts away. I have a friend who used to say, “I can’t meditate, it means you have to clear the mind or stop thinking.” Hogwash! The mind thinks. That is its job. Practices like meditation, are ways of slowing the mind (not stopping it), by just witnessing, and learning to discover stillness.

Look at it this way: So long as you observe your thoughts passively as though you were a scientist watching the latest developments under the microscope, those worries will become less plentiful and less compelling. This is simply because you are no longer fueling them. Resist, and they will persist, since the nature of our mental activity tends to be rapid, emotion-laden thinking.

4. Be aware of “pairs of opposites.” Emotions like happiness, sadness, pain and pleasure are conditions that happen as a matter of course. On the other hand, one thing that doesn’t change is your ability to witness. The next time you are faced with something unpleasant, try and remember this. Say to yourself, “This will change. This is not permanent. There is absolutely no reason to panic.” Remember too, that the equanimity practice I describe here also necessitates not going overboard when things go well. It all takes takes practice.

Janet Aschkenasy is a MainStreet writer and a registered yoga teacher who directs the volunteer teaching program at Callen LordeCommunity Health Center in New York City.