Have you ever wondered how to break free of a worry loop? You know the experience. You’re in the shower, at the computer, or out to dinner with the family and there is a worrisome thought running through your mind over and over — a looming deadline, an awkward social interaction, the finances, etc. It doesn’t matter if the worry is irrational — or recognized as unhelpful — you still can’t shake it. No matter what you try, your mind keeps returning to the troubling thought.
The good news is by following three simple steps — rooted in psychological research and neurobiology — you can step off the worry-loop wheel and get back to enjoying your life.
First Step: Signal Breath
The Signal Breath, a technique developed by Dr. Bresler at UCLA in the 1970’s, not only releases tension but it also signals to your body that relaxation is coming. Through repetition, the Signal Breath becomes associated with de-stressing and automatically triggers the relaxation response. Here’s how to do it:
Take in a deep breath and hold it, noticing the tension it creates in the body. After 3 – 5 seconds, slowly release the air, telling yourself to let go and relax. Repeat this sequence a second time. After taking two Signal Breaths, proceed to the next step while breathing freely and naturally.
Second Step: Hyper-focus on Environment
Wherever you find yourself, begin hyper-focusing on your surroundings using the different senses — starting with the auditory sense. Listen intently to all the sounds you can detect in your immediate environment. For the moment, allow this to be your only job — everything else can wait.
After hyper-focusing on sound, find a visual anchor in the environment and study it. Examine the color, texture, and pattern of the object. Notice every detail so that you could describe it to someone or draw the object from memory later. After approximately one minute, shift from the visual to the tactile sensory experience. Move your hand across the nearest table or desk, noticing the temperature and pressure against your palms. Feel the fabric or material of the chair you’re using.
Take note of how your body feels — your hands resting on your lap, the pressure of your feet against the ground, etc. After 30 – 60 seconds, shift to the olfactory sense. Take in a deep breath and either study the aroma of the room or go grab a tea bag or spice or something with a pleasing scent. In a detective-like fashion, analyze the smell for approximately 60 seconds.
When you hyper-attune to the environment in this fashion, a lot is happening. In their 2007 landmark study, Farb and colleagues had participants engage in different types of mental activity while undergoing neuroimaging. When participants engaged in internal, reflective tasks away from the present moment, the narrative focus brain pathway was activated. This pathway, while important for planning and problem solving, is also where negative ruminations, including worry, take place. In contrast, when participants were given tasks that required present-moment awareness, a separate part of the brain, the experiential focus brain pathway, was activated. And, most importantly, in terms of impacting worry loops, they discovered you could only be in one brain pathway at a time — in other words, being in the moment and worrying are incompatible. When you hyper-attune to your surroundings, a proven strategy for present-moment awareness, it pops you out of the narrative focus brain pathway (home of the worry loop) and plops you down in the experiential focus pathway.
Third Step: Loving-Action
The last step is redirecting your attention and life energy to others. Think or pray for a person in need. Send an encouraging text or engage in an act of kindness. This accomplishes three things. First, it provides a healthy home for your attention which is vulnerable to wandering back to the worry. Second, it tells the threat center of the brain, responsible for alerting you to potential dangers, that there is no emergency — no cause for concern. Someone who is truly under threat doesn’t place his or her concern on others. The threat center will take notice and turn down the worry volume. Lastly, engaging in loving-action, especially when you’re worried or anxious, will give you a deep sense of satisfaction. You will feel the benefits of expressing the best parts of who you are.
Worry loops cause unnecessary anxiety in millions of people each day. My hope for you is the next time you’re caught up in a worry loop you’ll remember the formula:
Signal Breath + Hyper-focus on Environment + Loving-Action = Break the Worry Loop