How to stop worrying about things you can't control

Learning how to stop worrying about things you can't control can be hard. Here, three psychologists reveal the practical moves to make in your daily life

Woman looking out of window into the sunset from living room and relaxing, representing how to stop worrying
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Want to learn how to stop worrying about things you can't control? You're certainly not the only one. Whether it's a question of money, job security, the future of a relationship, or something comparatively minor like an upcoming social event, we all worry about the unknown. 

And we worry for a reason. Being concerned, playing out potential events in our heads, what we're going to say, what someone else is going to say, and so on, are all natural responses to stress. Worrying helps us cope better with the outcome of a situation (whether that's positive or negative) and better prepare for what we can control. Of course, worrying too much or too often is undoubtedly going to put you in a negative mindset, potentially leading to issues like anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Luckily, for most people, it'll be entirely possible to manage your worries and limit the amount of time you spend worrying about the things you can't control. Here, we speak to three certified psychologists to reveal how to deflect your most troublesome worries and better enjoy your life. From ways to avoid burnout without quitting your job to the everyday tools you can utilize, such as meditation apps, this is what they have to recommend. 

How to stop worrying about things you can't control

1. Find a distraction

It can be easier said than done but the quickest way to learn how to stop worrying is to distract yourself. "If you are too focused on worrying, doing something engaging that requires your focus and attention that has nothing to do with worrying can help you deflect," explains Dr Gail Saltz, the clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. 

Common distraction techniques include working out, especially cardio exercises like cycling, swimming, or running as you'll often be on the move and have to concentrate on your surroundings, forcing you to think about something other than your worries. Socialising with friends and/or family is also a good idea, as is picking up a new hobby like gardening, crafting, or cooking. 

2. Talk to someone

As the saying goes, a problem halved is a problem solved and talking can be one of the best ways of working through your worries, says psychologist Dr Daniel Glazer. "It can be daunting at first but once you are able to open up and talk to others, whether that's friends, partners, or a professional, it can be very rewarding."

Whether it's concerns about home life, work, or your relationship, talking about what's concerning you with someone you trust can help to create some distance from your worries, he explains. "This helps with then considering possible solutions or different perspectives. It can also bring about a feeling of clarity, which not only reduces stress and anxiety but can help you be more confident and resilient." 

Two women sitting on yoga mats in living room, stretching to learn how to stop worrying

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3. Do regular exercise

As noted, exercise can be hugely beneficial if you find yourself constantly worrying about things - especially those outside of your control. Not only does it physically force you to think about something else though, but working out (regardless of the activity you choose) will boost the production of endorphins. 

These chemicals are made in the brain in response to positive stressors like exercise and improve our wellbeing almost instantly. Ever heard of a runner's high? That's a rush of endorphins in the brain following a session of high-intensity exercise. 

"Regular aerobic exercise can help decrease overall stress and anxiety levels which tends to decrease moment-to-moment worrying," says Dr Saltz, who is also the host of the podcast How Can I Help? She points to a review by the Boston University School of Medicine that stresses the importance of exercising frequently, more so than exercising at high intensity or for long periods of time at once, to reap the mental health benefits of exercise.

But Dr Glazer, who is also the co-founder of UKTherapyRooms, says if you're not used to working out regularly then don't feel like you have to overhaul your life and start doing yoga every day to make this change. That's another stress you don't need. "Making improvements to your diet and exercise routine doesn't have to be an overhaul of your day-to-day life," he explains. "Making small improvements can create tremendous impact." 

"Increasing exercise too can definitely help manage your worries and stress, find something that is enjoyable and gets your body moving, it doesn’t have to be high-intensity routines," says Dr Glazer. That could be walking around your local park before work, squeezing in a run during your lunch break, or doing a strength training session at home with one of the best workout apps.

4. Make small changes to your diet

As noted by Dr Glazer, making small changes to your daily eating and drinking habits can also make a difference - especially if you can reduce the amount of caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods in your diet. 

As caffeine is a stimulant, drinking several cups of coffee, tea, or energy drinks throughout the day could be supercharging your anxious mood. Caffeine, research by the University of Cardiff explains, makes our hearts beat faster, heats up the body, and increases our breathing rate - all of which are symptoms of anxiety. The body doesn't recognise the difference between simply too much caffeine and actual anxiety, triggering the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. the 'fight or flight response').

If coffee, tea, energy drinks, or chocolate is the way you get through the day, avoid having it too late to avoid the negative side effects, says psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Lindsay Browning. "Caffeine has an average half-life of about 6 hours. That means that six hours after your cup of coffee, half of the caffeine is still in your system," she says. "If you have trouble sleeping then it is recommended for you to have your last cup of caffeine of the day at around 2 pm."

Alcohol on the other hand is a depressant. While it's common for many people to have a glass of wine after a stressful day, as a report by Georgetown University Hospital explains, regular drinking can disrupt an important neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA that helps to regulate our nervous system, adding to the problem rather than making it better. Switching to mindful drinking or cutting out alcohol completely and finding alcohol alternatives could be a good idea if you find it's making you feel worse.

And naturally, eating a diet that's primarily made up of non-processed foods, with plenty of vegetables, fruits, protein, carbohydrates, and fibre, will keep the body moving effectively and make you feel better in turn. 

Woman looking at sleep score on mobile phone

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5. Prioritize sleep

If you're feeling constantly worried, you'll be all too familiar with the effect that stress and anxiety has on our sleep. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can also make these feelings worse, creating a vicious cycle. 

"Research indicates that sleep deprivation can seriously impact your mental health, and those who suffer from sleep issues often also experience anxiety," explains Dr Glazer. "When you are sleeping poorly or not at all your body releases more cortisol, the hormone associated with stress." 

To better handle your worries, make sure you have your sleep schedule sorted and a bedtime routine in place, suggests Dr Browning, who works with And So To Bed. "Keeping a regular wake and bedtime seven days per week will help you sleep better," she says. "When you keep a regular sleep schedule your body develops a robust circadian rhythm which helps you to sleep at the right time at night. If you go to bed early and wake up early on weekdays, but stay up late and have a lie-in on the weekend, you are giving yourself weekend 'jet lag', making it much harder to go to sleep early on a Sunday night ready for another early start on Monday morning." 

Dr Browning has the following tips for getting your nighttime routine sorted: 

  • Detox from your devices: "Make sure that you switch off your electronic devices an hour before bed, in particular, your phone. Smartphones emit bright light which your brain thinks is the same as daylight. This can make it difficult to transition into sleep mode when bedtime rolls around," she suggests. 
  • Have a warm bath: "If you have a warm bath, you artificially raise your body temperature. When you come out of the warm bath, your body temperature will naturally start to drop, mimicking the drop in temperature that happens as you fall asleep, making you feel sleepier." 
  • Get out of bed if you can't sleep: "It's much better to get out of bed and do something else for a little while instead of lying in bed, not sleeping for hours on end," she says. "Instead, get up and read a chapter of a book before going back to bed and trying to sleep again, just resist reaching for your phone."

6. Practice mindful meditation

Meditation is another popular way to learn how to deal with stress effectively. It's not going to be a solution on its own but it can be a useful way to stay in the present and stop yourself from dwelling too much on the future. 

"The practice of attending to the present and only the present can help decrease worry," says Dr Saltz. "Worry is usually future-oriented, i.e. 'what if this happens',  and attending to the now can help diminish future worry." 

Dr Glazer agrees. "Many people are prone to rumination, where they experience a thought-processing cycle which involves repetitive thinking and over-analysis. Mindfulness can help in these instances, this is where you focus on being aware of your thoughts, feelings, senses and overall being present in the moment," he says. 

Much like exercise though, incorporating mindfulness practices into your routine doesn't have to be an additional stress in your life. It can be a traditional sit-down mindfulness practice, using one of the best meditation apps for instance, or more movement-based mindfulness like soft hiking or walking meditation. Many people also find stretching-based workouts, like yoga and Pilates a good way to focus on the present. 

7. Do something positive

When you find yourself worrying about something outside of your control, switch the narrative and do something productive and positive. That'll help you set a habit to learn how to stop worrying. Much like how finding a distraction will deflect from your stress, as will doing something positive. 

That could be something as simple as making the bed and putting a wash on, tidying the house. If you find cooking relaxing, then making your favourite food for lunch or dinner could be the thing to do. It could be phoning a friend or relative, checking in to make sure they're doing okay. It doesn't have to be ticking something off your to-do list, but doing some productive may help to lessen stress in other areas of your life. 

Research even shows that positive thinking alone can have a huge impact on our mental health, with a study by Shiraz University of Medical Sciences finding that participants scored their levels of anxiety and depression lower and their quality of life higher following the intervention.

8. Practice different mindfulness techniques

Alternative mindfulness techniques aside from meditation could also be beneficial, says Dr Saltz. "Try different relaxation techniques," she suggests. "Using paced deep breathing or processing muscle relaxation when you are feeling worried can decrease your levels of physical arousal. These will also help your mind to relax and decrease worrying."

For example, you may find that a sound bath could be beneficial for quietening your mind. Breathwork practices and learning breathing techniques for anxiety may also help, alongside meditation.  

9. Get into a habit of journaling

Journaling is another famous mindfulness technique, designed to move the worries from your mind down onto paper.

"Putting your feelings into words has many mental health benefits," says Dr Glazer. "Studies [from Pennslyvania State University among others] show that emotion-based journaling can decrease anxiety and symptoms of depression, and it can improve stress management. As well as improving wellbeing, reducing stress can also support your immune system." 

Woman journaling in a paper diary with pen to learn how to stop worrying

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10. Allow the worry to exist

While we might want the worries removed from our minds, there's no problem with knowing that you're worried about something and compartmentalizing it. 

"Try acknowledging the concern is present without particularly engaging with it or trying to solve it or immediately pushing it away," suggests Dr Saltz. "Tell yourself that it is your worry, which doesn’t mean it is reality and that you can live with it, accept it, and still move on. The less you engage with your worry and the less you struggle the more quickly it tends to drift away." 

Is it normal to worry about things you can't control? 

Yes, it's totally normal to worry about things you can't control, says Dr Saltz. Many people want to learn how to stop worrying too. "In fact, many people tend to worry about things out of their control since worry often stems from uncertainty. There will always be an aspect of uncertainty about what might or might not happen," she says. 

It's also worth bearing in mind that worry has a place in all our lives and in some cases, it can actually be useful. Research by the University of California suggests that worrying can be motivational. If you're worried about something, you're more likely to take action to prevent the adverse situation - for example, if you're worried about a medical issue, you're more likely to go to the doctor, which could lead to an earlier diagnosis. 

The report also suggests that worrying can act as an emotional buffer, helping you to better cope with the outcome of the situation. If the outcome is even just slightly less negative than you thought it was going to be, you'll be excited about it and feel ultimately more positive about the entire situation.

"Extreme levels of worry are harmful to one's health. I do not intend to advocate for excessive worrying," says Professor Kate Sweeney, author of the study. "Instead, I hope to provide reassurance to the helpless worrier -- planning and preventive action is not a bad thing. Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all."

However, it's important to note that constantly worrying could be a sign of a larger problem. "Most people might have some worry from time to time but a person who is overrun with worry in a way that is interfering with their day-to-day life could have an anxiety disorder, which is not natural and requires treatment with a professional," says Dr Saltz. 

Why do I constantly worry? 

We worry about things we can't control as a response to uncertainty, says Dr Glazer. "A lack of control is something many people struggle with in general, so it's only natural to be concerned about the outcomes of situations you can't change," he explains.

You may be more prone to worrying constantly if you feel like you have a lot of responsibilities and people depending on you. The fear of dropping the ball and having something go wrong, which could in turn negatively impact your life in other ways, and the fear of disappointing the people you care about will be what's causing you concern. 

"Worrying about the thoughts of others, the weather, the past or the common what-ifs affects even the most stoic of individuals," adds Dr Glazer. 

Am I worrying too much? 

Worrying isn't uncommon, agrees Dr Glazer, but it's best to be mindful if you find yourself excessively worrying and constantly thinking about how to stop worrying. "It could be a sign that additional help is needed," he says. Here are a couple of signs that you could be worrying a little too much and may need to seek professional help, according to the psychologist: 

  • You've lost a healthy sleep schedule: As noted by Dr Browning, sleep is essential to keep the body and brain ticking along, so if you find yourself kept awake most nights by worry, keep waking up during the night, keep waking up early, or frequently experience anxiety-induced nightmares, it may be time to get some help. 
  • You've lost your appetite: Similarly, a loss of appetite is one of the biggest signs that things are not as they should be. It's also one of the clear signs of depression, according to a report by the University of California at Berkeley. 
  • Work is suffering: Worry is just one of the many symptoms of burnout from work but you may also find your day-to-day work going downhill if you're constantly worried. After all, it's difficult to concentrate on a job if you're concerned about other areas of your life more often than not. 
  • Your relationships are affected: Similarly, it'll be difficult to prioritize friends, family, and romantic relationships if you're feeling constantly worried, stressed, and anxious about something. While relationships can be the cause of many worries, they should largely complement your life more than take away something from it. 
Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.