In this blog, Paul Saunders, Senior Psychologist & Jeanine Browne Director LN Consulting Australia Pty Ltd provide answers for that universal question….how do I stop worrying about work?
They explain the neurological mechanisms involved in worrying and how to change the worry pathways in your brain so you can become worry free.
In a LinkedIn article titled “An open letter to HR Managers” (17/7/2020) it was recognised that HR Managers often carry the weight of an organisations worries. The author of that article was empathising with people in these type of roles as the world piles on even more pressure with covid-19 restrictions.
It seems HR managers stay awake at night stressing over the accuracy of figures in reports or whether or not organisational processes are compliant. They allegedly experience feelings of anxiety and guilt over their lack of parenting quality and quantity and feel pressured over hiring decisions. HR managers, it reported, were feeling doubtful about their influencing abilities, unsure about where to access expert resources or how to finalise budget conversations on time and whether the senior leadership team would complete the transformation projects as required.
These HR manager thoughts, it inferred, were on a continuous loop in their brains, repeating like a hamster on a wheel, or embedding them in a ‘Groundhog Day’ experience.
It strikes me that many people experience these types of ponderings about their work, family or life in general.
Self-reflection, worrying, thinking, and pondering all suggest a purposeful inward focus aimed at cognitive problem solving. (Treynor W, Gonzalez R, Nolen-Hoeksema S. 2003).
Worry, anxious thoughts or preoccupation with anticipated events e.g. Presentations/public speaking, writing a report, interviews, influencing ‘old way thinkers’, completing a training program or meeting a deadline all fall within the range of ‘normal’. (Ottaviani C, Couyoumdjian A. 2013).
Who is susceptible?
People who problem solve as a large part of their job description e.g. engineers, managers, diagnostic technicians, consultants, builders, repairers, parents, HS&E workers, scientists, project managers etc – are all susceptible to worrying as this is the first part of the process of finding solutions by focusing and concentrating on the problem.
Over time, problem solvers may become wired to focus only on problems and find it increasingly more difficult to stop their focus when they are not on the job. This is evident especially when: a solution cannot be found, or they will not accept a solution cannot be found or a solution remains unclear.
If you find yourself in this situation you may find these two actions helpful:
1. Write the problem down on a piece of paper. This gets it out of your brain and helps stop the continuous problem-solving loop as the brain has taken an action (the writing) and can focus on something else again.
2. Distract/redirect attention to other content e.g. count tiles, describe the view or recite lyrics etc.
3. Yelling STOP…telling yourself to STOP…being aware of the self-talk that is encouraging the worrying is the first step to stopping it.
4. Snapping yourself with a rubber band as a physical deterrent or to trigger a shock may also work.
When pondering moves towards brooding or obsessing the actions listed above will just not work.
What can you do if you have already moved into brooding or ruminating?
There is a DARK SIDE to pondering:
Psychologically speaking: Obsessive thoughts are a neurological dysfunction, of unknown causes, forcing your thoughts into a repetitive loop. (Cognitive Health Magazine, 2020).
If the pondering becomes incessant you move to the dark side of worrying, it’s called rumination.
Rumination is characterised in terms of persistent and recurring self-reflective thoughts about an issue that takes attention away from relevant or current tasks.
Rumination is usually focused on past events that have had unsatisfactory results or unachieved standards. (Treynor W, Gonzalez R, Nolen-Hoeksema S. 2003).
Rumination can be divided into two major subcategories, namely, reflective pondering and brooding.
Reflective pondering, self-reflection, suggests a purposeful inward focus aimed at cognitive problem solving.
Brooding, rumination, on the other hand involves a comparison of one’s current situation with some unachieved standard. Often, rumination is associated with a decreased controllability of thoughts, a sense of being overwhelmed and a feeling of helplessness.
Such maladaptive rumination has been found to be associated with the generation of excessive and elaborate negative thoughts, information, and actions. (Treynor W, Gonzalez R, Nolen-Hoeksema S.2003).
When your ponderings have turned into ruminations, they may become a risk factor to your health and wellbeing. (Ottaviani C, Couyoumdjian A. 2013) and (Joormann J. 2006).
Some common topics people develop preoccupation with: mistakes made, losses experienced, slights taken, actions taken/not taken and/or opportunities lost.
The feelings associated with ruminations are almost always negative and include guilt, regret, anger, and envy.
Internal self-talk can be harsh and when in a ruminating loop our Inner critic often piles on with some harsh judgements, criticism, grudges, and connecting our belief system to our worries e.g. “everything would have been “better” if you had only “x”.
What can you do?
1. Mindfulness can be delivered via different models: psychological cognitive therapy, yoga, breathing techniques, meditation etc. The objective is to help ruminators gain insights into how their own brain functions and allows individuals to focus on their present state. All these techniques, when practised routinely help individuals suppress the impulse of obsessively focusing on past events.
2. Question and/or change our beliefs – make new ones. Having a professional, Psychologist, assist you work through this process is advised as changing or questioning your belief systems and values may bring up past issues associated with negative feelings.
3. Clarify our assumptions & change our feelings about the ‘worry’. Once you are aware of how a situation makes you feel you can choose to adopt a different feeling to the situation at will. If your situation is dangerous to your physical/mental health than having a professional, Psychologist, assist you work through this process is recommended.
4. Practice acceptance by acknowledging the things you can control and those you cannot.
5. Practise self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is described by psychologist Albert Bandura as “a personal judgement of how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”. Being confident, comfortable, and realistic about what you can control or influence and what you cannot is key to stopping the continuous worry loop of ruminations.
Joormann J. Differential effects of rumination and dysphoria on the inhibition of irrelevant emotional material: Evidence from a negative priming task. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 2006;30(2):149–160.
Ottaviani C, Couyoumdjian A. Pros and cons of a wandering mind: A prospective study. Frontiers in Psychology. 2013;4(AUG):1–9.
Treynor W, Gonzalez R, Nolen-Hoeksema S. Rumination Reconsidered: A Psychometric Analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 2003;27(3):247–259.
APS Psychology Journal - InPsych August 2019