Five hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne said: My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened. Now there’s a study that proves it. This study looked into how many of our imagined calamities never materialize. In this study, subjects were asked to write down their worries over an extended period of time and then identify which of their imagined misfortunes did not actually happen. Lo and behold, it turns out that 85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.
Montaigne’s quote has made people laugh for five centuries, but worry is no joke. The
stress it generates causes serious problems. The stress hormones that worry dumps into your brain shrinks brain mass, lowers your IQ, makes you prone to heart disease, cancer and premature aging, predicts martial problems, family dysfunction and clinical depression, and makes seniors more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.
If we could get a handle on the worry that habitually, incessantly, and often unconsciously seizes hold of our mind, we would greatly increase the odds of living a longer, happier, and more successful life. But don’t worry; new research has found that you can rewire your brain to stop worrying. It starts with the decision not to believe the misfortune that your worried thoughts see in your future. An example of someone who made that decision is an elderly woman my friend Martha was asked to drive to the clinic for an annual check-up. Martha didn’t know this woman. All she was told was that this person was more than ninety years old and probably quite frail. But the person who opened the door when Martha knocked could hardly be described as old and frail. The person who stood before Martha was a sprightly lady who appeared to be in her seventies at most.
“Do you mind me asking how old you are?” Martha asked on the drive to the doctor.
“Ninety-three,” the woman answered.
Martha was astonished. “You look so much younger,” she said. “What’s your secret?”
“Well, honey,” she answered, “Thirty years ago I made the decision to stop worrying and I haven’t wasted a moment on worry since.”
It was this decision that made her younger and healthier than her chronological age. Think of all the energy she gained through her decision not to worry. Think of all the anxiety she spared herself, all the needless stress she avoided. Martha said that it showed on her face, in her attitude, and in how well her brain functioned.
It’s possible to make this same choice to let go of worry and gradually move past worry altogether. You can rewire your brain to quiet the worry circuit. It takes a decision and it takes a special kind of practice, but it’s simpler than you might imagine. I present 20 proven tools and processes in my book, The End of Stress, that are neuroplastic in nature, meaning they represent a change of mind that can rewire the brain to extinguish knee jerk fear reactions that set off incessant worry … and all in a matter of four to six weeks. A tool as simple as The Clear Button can get you started.
Here’s how it works. You imagine a button at the center of your palm. You press it and count to 3, thinking of each number as a color.
- Breathe in, count 1, think red.
- Breathe in, count 2, think blue.
- Breathe in, count 3, think green.
- On the exhale, completely let go of thinking anything for a moment.
Nature gave us a 90 second window to bust stressful thinking before it takes a long walk off a short pier, and The Clear Button gets us through the window in time. The more you bust stressful thinking during the day, the more your brain will strengthen synapses that end worry.
Here is the neurological reason why the Clear Button works. The part of the brain that causes stress reactions literally has the intelligence of a toddler. And every parent knows you don’t stop a tantrum by appealing to a child’s logic. You distract the child. This tool distracts the terrible two-year-old in your brain from casting you off the deep end.
Another simple approach to dissolving worry is called Finish Each Day and Be Done With
It. It facilitates the choice to let go of the day’s problems, so you don’t take them home. This piece of wisdom comes from a letter written by the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to his daughter who was worried over a mistake she’d made. This is what it says:
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders, losses, and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day; let today go so you can begin tomorrow well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. Each new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.
By “old nonsense” Emerson is referring to our worries and woes. Research found the two to be synonymous. In the study I cited, nonsense and worry were one and the same thing – not once in a while – but nearly every single time.
I invite you to cut-and-paste the statement and post it where you’ll see it at the close of your work day. If you allow Emerson’s words to release you completely from your day’s labor, your evening is guaranteed to be more enjoyable, more relaxing, and more restorative. You’ll also sleep better. I’ve framed Emerson’s statement and placed it on my desk and I read it with conviction before closing up shop for the day. Then I head into the evening committed to being happy and at peace, so I can enjoy the people and things I love.