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Not to Worry

How to quiet anxious thoughts

Today, we’ve asked Seth J. Gillihan to share his Tip of the Week.

Like many couples, my wife and I struggled to have kids. It took several months for us to conceive, and then we lost two pregnancies near the end of the first trimester. When the second miscarriage began, my wife lay down beside me on the couch, and we both fell asleep, too sad for words.

It was months before we were ready to try again. But more than a year later, my wife woke me up on a Monday morning with the words I was hoping to hear: “Seth—I’m pregnant!” 

This time around, we worried constantly. I tried to force the worries out of my mind as best I could and think about something else. Although it made sense that I didn’t want to dwell on the possibility that this pregnancy would end like the first two, ignoring my feelings didn’t really work. I’d try to suppress my worries, but they kept creeping back into my thoughts. 

What’s a more effective way to reduce worry? Focusing on the present. A recent study found that participants who gently focused their attention on the sounds around them with “interest and curiosity” were better able to decrease their worry in the moment compared to when they tried to push away their anxious thoughts.   

If I could go back and talk to my 32-year-old self, I would tell him this: Your worries are understandable, but trying to ignore those fears only makes them stronger. It’s more helpful to redirect your attention to the present. For example, place your hands on the table when you’re eating a meal. Feel how solid it is. When you’re lost in fearful fantasies about the future, let your senses guide you back to what’s real—right here, right now.  

Don’t try to pretend everything is OK when you’re worried.

Do focus your attention on the present to ease your worries about the future. When young people feel anxious, help them redirect their attention to what they feel, hear, and see at this moment. Let them know that when their mind is filled with future-focused What ifs, they can guide their awareness back to What is

With courage and gratitude,

Seth J. Gillihan is a clinical psychologist, therapist, and the author, most recently, of  Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope, and Peace. He lives near Philadelphia with his wife and three kids.