health

The 6 ways you can break your 'worry cycle', according to a psychologist.

Question for you: Have you ever felt like your worries and what-ifs have just completely spiralled out of control? It usually starts with something small - an email from your boss, a message from a friend - and then suddenly it spins into a full-blown rabbit hole of anxious thoughts.

Known as 'worry spiraling' or a 'worry cycle', sometimes it can feel impossible to pull yourself back once you've started the process. You literally feel you're on some kind of human hamster wheel.

And while it isn't for anyone else to decide what is and isn't worth worrying about (*insert people telling you: "don't worry about it!"*), it is possible to overthink your worries and end up falling into an endless stream of panic.

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So, what can you do to break this feeling? And what does it mean for your health if you're anything but the 'chill girl'? (Don't worry, she doesn't exist).

We had a chat to Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno to find out more.

What is a 'worry cycle'?

Sokarno basically describes the 'worry cycle' as what happens when you fall into a spiral of worrying about a potential 'threat' or fear around a future event that you perceive might be negative.

She said, "It is similar to an 'anxiety cycle' however a little different because while the term anxiety is often thrown around loosely. Anxiety can be recognised as a disorder if it has effects to your day to day functioning, whereas worry isn’t."

"Worry or stress are absolutely still mental health concerns, but most humans experience these feelings regularly, whereas not everyone has diagnosed anxiety disorder," said Sokarno.

So, to make it clear - just because you worry too much, doesn't necessarily mean you have anxiety. These are two separate things.

While we hear the phrases 'stressed' and 'anxious' being thrown around interchangeably, Sokarno reminds us that those specific phrases can mean different things to different people.

"If someone says that they had an anxiety attack, they often mean they felt anxious or were suffering from feelings of stress and worry, or perhaps they felt the symptoms of a panic attack."

She said that understanding the differences between stress, worry and anxiety can be difficult because all conditions can have similar feelings and symptoms.

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As to what causes the 'worry cycle', Sokarno said this depends on the person and the circumstances. 

"There are several reasons why someone might get into a cycle of worry, and this can range from predispositions (being inclined to worry through generations), medical conditions, personal relationships (or relationship dynamics), or even past experiences."

What kind of impact can this have on your health?

If you find that your worry-filled mind starts to distract you from productivity or interfere with your relationships, this could be a sign that it's impacting your health.

"Long-term worry can have physical and mental health impacts since it can cause your gut to consistently release the stress hormone cortisol," explains Sokarno.

"Worrying constantly can also lead you to develop other disorders such as anxiety or depression or cause you to experience panic attacks."

This can obviously take a toll on your body - both mentally and physically.

"On a physical level, consistent worry or the worry cycle can cause headaches, dizziness and stomach pains. Symptoms can vary in intensity, ranging from mild to severe, with symptoms often becoming gradually more intense over time if not managed well."

"The problem with feelings or worry, stress and anxiety is that when it gets out of hand and exceeds the everyday levels, it can become really damaging on a person’s health."

Sokarno goes on to say that our thoughts can quickly shift from motivating to damaging, and when we produce too much cortisol (the bodies stress hormone), this can have negative physical and emotional implications for us.

How to break your worry cycle.

The solution? If you're feeling overwhelmed by worry, Sokarno said there are six main things you can do to help keep your thoughts in check.

1. Mindfulness techniques.

"Mindfulness means different things to different people however it is really just paying attention to your life in the present moment (and being engaged with whatever is happening around you and within you)," said Sokarno.

It might feel obvious, but it's all about "living in the now rather than looking to the past or future too much and being grateful for the position you’re in."

"Mindfulness is often perceived as being linked to Buddhist practices but today it encapsulates a lot more and there are many activities associated with it, such as meditation, yoga, journaling or even art."

2. Self-care activities.

According to Sokarno, there are a range of self-care activities you can do that have been proven to help ease feelings of stress, worry and anxiety. 

"It’s all about spending some time allowing you to do the things that you love, or that help you relax such as taking a bath or getting your nails done."

Basically, this helps you compartmentalise these feelings and thoughts, and focus on something else.

3. Relaxation techniques.

It's time to work on your breathing, friend! 

This is something that is easy and brings immediate results. So, take yourself to a meditation or yoga class and relive some of that pent-up stress and worry.

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Sokarno adds, "The aim here is to get yourself into a state of calm and relaxation and it can be anything that helps you to do this!" 

4. Dietary adjustments.

While it's different for everyone, Sokarno said sometimes something as simple as cutting down your caffeine intake could help ease your mind dramatically. Yes, really!

"Our diet can affect our overall health and if we’re not fuelling our bodies with the right things, it can have an impact on many areas of our lives." 

"Try making some adjustments such as limiting caffeine and sugar intake and instead eating more greens and drinking water."

5. Exercise.

Sometimes, something as simple as moving your body can be a helpful way to turn the 'what-if' thoughts down a notch. And it doesn't mean you need to slog it out in a full-on boxing class - simply going for a walk or stretching can help ease your mind.

"Exercise in any form has been proven to have many mental health benefits. It doesn’t need to be a full-on cardio workout, it can just be walking to the office, a yoga class or doing some light stretching (or enough to get the heart rate up)."

6. Sessions with a psychologist.

If you notice you have some of the above symptoms, and always feel like your brain is swarming with worry-filled thoughts, firstly know that you're not alone. You should never hesitate to reach out to a friend, a family member or think about chatting with a professional.

"A psychologist can provide coping techniques or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you manage any of those feelings of worry," said Sokarno.

"These days you don’t need always need to do face-to-face session, you can also try options that allow you to do it from the comfort of your own home like with services like Lysn."

"If feelings and thoughts or worry are persistent and don’t seem to go away with any of the techniques mentioned away, speak to a professional immediately. This is especially important if those feelings and thoughts are damaging other areas of your daily life like relationships, work or study, sleeping, eating or affecting you financially."

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or  beyondblue 1300 22 4636. 

Can you relate to any of the above? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

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