Worry is something many of us deal with regularly. We were recently asked how to approach times in which we struggle with worry, especially in regards to things over which we have no control. We all do this from time to time. We worry and stress about something, regardless of our ability to change it.
We’ll offer a few practices we’ve found useful in letting go of worry, including three guided meditations. First, let’s dive into what worry is and how we experience it.
Worry, anxiety, and stress happen to all of us. We get lost in the thinking mind, what may happen or is happening, and out of rational thinking. Sometimes, we worry about things which we cannot control at all. Other times, we worry about a situation we are going to be in, replaying over and over again our idea of what will happen.
Worry is something that occurs in the mind, but there are also physical effects of worry. Unlike anxiety, worry is generally related to something specific or real, and is largely a state of mind. Anxiety on the other hand is a more general state, and related to a physical experience as well.
Buddhist teachings suggest that worry is a mental state just like any other mental state we experience. Just like we do with joy, anger, or calmness of mind, we bring our kind awareness to the experience and observe the minds. There are a few ways that Buddhism teaches us to address worry.
First, there is worry as part of the fourth hindrance. The five hindrances are states which arise in meditation practice and hinder us from settling into concentration. The fourth hindrance is restlessness and worry.
Generally, restlessness is seen as the physical component while worry is seen as the mental component. Among the recommendations in the suttas for dealing with restlessness and worry are:
- Cultivating knowledge of dhamma(SN 46.53)
- Having noble friendship (SN 46.53)
- Suitable conversation (SN 46.53)
- Cultivating concentration (SN 46.53)
- Equanimity (SN 46.53)
- Giving wise attention to the mind with quietude (SN 46.51)
- Knowing when worry is present and not (MN 10 – Satipatthana)
One of the chief ways in which we work with the five hindrances in meditation practice is by simply noticing when they are present or not. We can do this by simply noting to ourselves that we are experiencing worry. Simply saying “Oh. Worry is present!” is enough to note to ourselves and bring awareness to it.
In relation to worry as a hindrance, the Buddha frequently pointed out that the hindrances require nourishment. That is, we must feed our worry for it to exist. It is difficult, but we can train the mind to denourish worry and cultivate a mental state free from it.
Relating to Thoughts
In addition to worry as a hindrance, we can look at the state as we would any other experience. We don’t need to block negative thoughts or try to force ourselves to just think positive thoughts. Instead, we can bring our awareness to the thinking mind, the worry, and the experience.
Sometimes, the mind falls into a state of papañca, or wandering mind. When the mind falls into worry, this is often the case. Instead of letting the mind just roll on its own, we can bring mindfulness to what is occurring. We can see the thoughts come and go, and the impermanence of each one.
We also can work on observing with mindfulness and not reacting. Although we may find the experience unpleasant, we don’t need to respond by hating it or having a strong aversion. We can notice that it is unpleasant, that there is a slight disliking, and watch it with a compassionate awareness.
I also think it’s important to understand what happens when we worry. The mind begins to think about something that is perhaps fancied, in the future, and/or stressful. This can cause or be caused by anxiety, and can lead to a physical experience as well.
When the mind gets activated and into a state of worry, the body goes into fight or flight mode, or the state in which we perceive a threat and need to respond. This is often responsible for the feelings we get in the body associated with worry, such as an increase in blood pressure, shallow breathing, and a fast heart rate.
When we go into this survival mode, we begin acting a little more on instinct. Recent research suggests that activity in the prefrontal cortex is significantly less when an individual is experiencing anxiety or worry. This means our problem solving and rational thinking is decreased.
When we go into a state of worry, we feel like we are thinking through something or perhaps solving a problem. However, the part of our brain that helps us to actually think through problems is less active than normal. We can think through things much more clearly when we are calm and not in a state of worry.
Practices to Help Address Worry
There are many ways we can deal with worry that arises. Here are five practices we have found to be useful in working with worry in general, and when it arises.
Mindfulness of the Mind
Mindfulness of the mind is a great practice to help us in many ways. We can begin to tune into the three marks of existence, tuning into the impermanent, not-self, and dukkha nature of the thinking mind. In this practice, we simply work to bring nonjudgmental awareness to the experience of thinking.
We can use this practice regularly, or when we’re experiencing anxiety during our days. Try working to tune into the experience of worry with a gentle awareness.
Self-compassion is another great meditation practice we can use to help us approach worry. As we continue to cultivate self-compassion in meditation practice, we are able to meet the difficult moments of worry with more clarity and patience.
Sometimes, we aren’t able to meet the state of worry with compassion or mindfulness of the thoughts. In these moments, a body scan be deeply useful. By returning to the body and the physical sensations, we can slow the thinking mind down and stop engaging with the thoughts. A body scan is a great way to go both in a moment of worry and to start our days.
Watch Diet and Exercise
There are many things we can try to help deal with worry. There are many foods that affect worry. Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine can cause worry, and omega-3 fatty acids may actually reduce worry.
Further research has shown that exercise can significantly decrease anxiety. It doesn’t have to be anything too strenuous. Even a few minutes of walking or other cardio can make a big difference.
Try tuning in mindfulness to what you eat and hwo you move your body. Although this may not be a traditional practice, we can really make it a practice in self-care and mindfulness.
Writing is another great way to address worry, and something I’ve used in my own practice with it. There are a number of different writing practices you can do, but one sticks out as my favorite.
As mentioned before, the state of worry naturally consists of us thinking about things we often don’t have control over. Instead of letting the mind just run, get a piece of paper and a pen.
Start by writing what your worry is. You may be as specific as possible, and include anything that comes up. Then, begin writing if you have control over this worry, and if there is actually anything you can do.
As we write like this, we can find some clarity on the issue. We see that our worries may be silly, or we find that we actually can do something about our worries. Writing can be incredibly cathartic for some individuals, and many people find this practice to settle them and bring some clarity.
Aversion and Suffering
We’ll end by talking briefly about aversion as a cause of suffering. Often when we experience worry, we crave to be free from the experience. Aversion is one of the three poisons, or root causes of suffering.
When our goal is to be free from all worry, we are creating suffering. Instead, we can work to change our relationship to worry. When it arises, we can respond with compassionate mindfulness and not allow it to snowball into more suffering. By not engaging with the worry, it does eventually subside.
It’s important to remember this teaching on aversion and its relationship with suffering as we work with worry. If we just push the worry away, we end up hurting more. Instead, we can meet the worry head-on. The “freedom” from worry comes in not buying into the worrisome thoughts, not in never having another worrisome thoughts.