Decrease Worry by Thinking Like a Scientist
February 2, 2014

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

-Dalai Lama

Worry doesn’t really serve a useful purpose, even though just about every human being spends time in this place, probably more than they would like. So why do people worry?  It’s primarily an attempt at dealing with uncertainty – one of the most difficult states that us humans have to contend with.  While there are many ways to work with uncertainty and fear (its close companion), one way to decrease worry is to think like a “rational scientist” would: to look at the data in front of you, and draw conclusions based on the objective evidence, rather than speculation.

As the Dalai Lama noted, if you have a problem that can be changed, then great.  Your job is to work on changing it.  And if it’s something completely beyond your control, that you can’t do anything about, then what’s the point in worrying about it?

Worrying vs. Thinking

As an extension of the Buddhist sage’s perspective, I like to distinguish between “worrying” and “thinking.”  In many ways, worry is a type of problem solving that’s gone awry.  What starts out as an attempt to find an answer or resolution shifts, at some point, into an endless cognitive loop of anticipated disaster at worst, and unrealistic outcomes at best.  Much mental energy is expended on trying to predict the future and little action, if any, is taken.  That’s worrying and not a productive use of time.

Thinking, on the other hand, is more focused on the problem-solving part of the situation (if there is a problem to solve) and typically leads to fresh ideas, rather than the more stale quality that accompanies worry.  Thinking includes things like looking closely at the “data,” reflecting on past experience, gathering more information, and bouncing ideas off close confidantes.  This is followed by a weighing of options and a conclusion about how best to proceed, whether it be an external action (e.g., “I’m concerned about this lingering cold; it would be good to make an appointment with my doctor”) or an internal one (e.g., “I won’t be able to see my doctor until tomorrow, so I’m going to put my mind on something else until then”).  This is in contrast to a catastrophic worry sequence that may sound like “I’ve had this cold for a week now, what if I have cancer?”  and “I know I have something bad; I won’t be able to sleep until I can speak with my doctor.”  These latter two sentences include cognitive distortions related to “jumping to conclusions” (and possibly “what if” scenarios when these are used repetitiously).  When cognitive distortions are operating, it’s often a sign that worry, rather than thinking, is taking place.

Worry as a Means of Dealing with Uncertainty

Keep in mind that a “conclusion” is essentially a hypothesis about what makes sense to do or not do, as there are no guarantees in life.  As mentioned previously, a pattern of worry is often an attempt at coping with the unknown – a place that can feel quite uncomfortable.  Assuming the worst offers some short-term “relief” because it provides a sense of knowing (although, in every situation, you never really know what’s going to happen until it happens).  To this point, studies show that many people would rather know what’s going to happen, even if it’s a negative outcome.  The not knowing is what is most feared.  Worrying is a way to fill in the gap that uncertainty brings.

On a related note, because of the inherent uncertainty in life, some people get caught in a trance of perfectionism, as a means of establishing a sense of control.  But, the perfectionism can lead to energy ill spent, or even a type of paralysis, where it feels impossible to decide on anything.  Yes, it’s possible that a lingering cold could indicate something serious, but based on statistics, it’s unlikely.  Nevertheless, that 1 in 100,000 chance (or whatever the odds are) can trigger doubt and fear.  And, when fear is front and center, a tunnel vision that magnifies the “what ifs” tends to happen. Again, this is all a means of coping with the discomfort that uncertainty brings.

But, there’s a better way.  (Actually, there are several skillful ways of working with fear and uncertainty, but this post is focusing on one strategy.)  Instead of feeding the worry and doubt, try to act like a “rational scientist” by evaluating the data, going with the odds, and at the same time, recognizing that nothing is foolproof (i.e., fostering acceptance of the unknown).  Employing this kind of mindset can help decrease worry.

When facing uncertainty, it can also be helpful to take some type of action, even if it’s small.  This breaks the cycle of worry, partly because it fosters a greater sense of control over the situation.  If you get the result you want from your action, then great.  And, if you don’t, taking the action was still useful because you now know that it didn’t work and you need to try something else.  This is simply the nuts and bolts of good scientific experimentation.

So, next time you’re in an anxious mode ask yourself about whether your mental and behavioral activity is being driven by “thinking” – looking at the objective data and going with the odds – vs. the more irrational process of “worry” and catastrophic speculation. To decrease worry, keep the former and let go of the latter by being a “rational scientist,” with your life as your primary subject.

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