The Art of Worrying Less

I can be a worrier. When I worry my mind isn’t in the present. Instead I’m in the past somewhere, or I’m in the future.

It’s not too fun. In fact, it’s pretty annoying. Worrying feels a lot like biting your nails, which I know a little bit about.

Here are some things worrying and nailbiting have in common:

  • Easy to do when you’re anxious
  • Easy to do when you’re nervous
  • Easy to learn from others
  • Feels a little comforting and productive
  • Actually counterproductive
  • Bad for your health
  • Tied to stress
  • It hurts and feels bad

Yeesh. Why do it!

Well, like any bad habit, it’s easy to get addicted to it. You might not even know you’re doing it.

Luckily, it’s possible to stop.

It took me over 20 years to stop biting my nails. And though I’m not perfect, I’ve figured out some things that might help. And these same things that help you stop biting your nails can also help with worry too.

1. Notice The Problem

It wasn’t easy for me to even notice when I was biting my nails. I would do it when I watched a movie, or read a book, or was talking on the phone. I might do it when I was driving, or thinking.

Worrying is like this too. Our brains can go crazy and we aren’t in control at all. The “crazy monkey brain” is swinging from branch to branch without rhyme or reason. First, just notice it. Don’t worry about doing anything yet, just be aware of when it happens.

2. Get Around The Shame

People are pretty good at pointing out others’ bad habits. I’ve had people tell me nailbiting is annoying, bad, disgusting, dangerous, or ugly. That’s all true and I didn’t disagree. I just couldn’t stop and now I felt even worse about it!

Shame around worrying might not be like this, but it’s out there. We might want to stop, but feeling bad about it doesn’t help. Instead of shaming...

3. Be Compassionate With Yourself

This is the big reason why I didn’t stop biting my nails until my late-20s. I wasn’t compassionate with myself. I’m driven. I demand a lot of myself. I’m sure there are all kinds of deep reasons why, but suffice it to say I just do. So the idea that nailbiting was something wrong with me fit with my “be hard on myself and be better!” mentality. Shame and perfectionism are close friends.

Worrying can be like this too. We are hard on ourselves and expect that we should know everything and plan for every scenario. This doesn’t make any sense. It’s perfectionism and fortune-telling mixed together. We can’t know what’s going to happen.

To run a self-compassion test ask this: would you treat someone the way you are treating yourself? 

In my case the answer is a big “No way!” I am much easier on other people. I don't demand crazy things from them or ask them to tell the future.  I am appreciative, give them a break and just ask them to do their best with whatever happens.

Being compassionate with yourself is hard, but it’s also simple. Focus on love and appreciation first. When you (1) notice and (2) get around the shame, take a breath and (3) think about compassion.

4. Have a Mindful Moment

I’ve found mindfulness to be helpful in my life. It’s actually pretty difficult for me to describe how unbelievable its affect has been on me.

Mindfulness is about watching your mind. Not judging it or turning it off, just watching. As the crazy monkey mind swings from branch to branch, you see it and then return to your breath. You return to the present moment.

Even if you do this for a moment, it can have a tremendous affect. String a couple of these moments together and now you’re on to something! I’ve never wanted to bite my nails or spend an extra moment worrying when I get to this mindful place. It’s a calm and quiet that can be a sanctuary away from all that. And it’s a great place to come to with self-compassion.

5. Be Present

Now as wonderful as mindfulness is, the world also comes knocking on our door. People ask things of us. Situations come up. Bills need to be paid. That’s okay and we can be present for that, but nailbiting and worrying don’t have to come too.

Being present means allowing life to happen around us and choosing how we want to engage with life. We don’t wait and worry about what’s coming. And we don't overthink the past and second guess everything that’s happened. We breathe. We pay attention to what’s around us. We sit in appreciation and we choose to engage where it feels good and right.

6. Be Around Positive People

All this doesn’t happen overnight, nor do we live on an island all alone. We learn worrying and nailbiting from others and we can also learn to move past them with others’ help as well. For instance, even if we haven't met in person, I hope this article is helpful to you. I also hope you can find positive and supportive people to be around as well.

My nailbiting turned a corner when I met my wife. She was one of the first people who didn’t judge me or shame me for doing it. In fact she didn’t mention it for a long time. I brought it up months after we had met and told her I wished I could stop. She listened, she cared and she asked if she could help. I didn’t want her to slap me on the wrist when she saw me doing it, or yell at me, or anything like that. I’ve had plenty of people do all those things. I wanted her to listen. And I told her I wasn’t sure how she could help, I would think about it. So I did.

She also asked me why I did it. I think people had asked me this before, but she asked it in a way I can’t remember ever hearing before. She was curious and interested. It was fascinating to her. She brought awareness without shame, compassion, mindfulness, presence and genuine curiosity.

For the first time, I thought about it in a new way. I realized one of the big reasons I bit my nails was that I wanted to keep them clean. As weird as that might sound. I had never learned how to take care of them in a healthy way. So I asked her if she could help me. She said yes.

That started changing everything.

7. Enjoy a New Healthy Habit

Together we began on the path to taking better care of my nails. I got the right tools, tried things out, and always had a nail file or clippers somewhere nearby. It became easier to do the healthy new habit than to bite them. And it felt way better and looked better too. And if I was driving and I couldn't do it myself, Tunga helps me out.

I also try to have a pen and paper around too. I’ve noticed sometimes I just have an idea in my head and I want to get it out. Writing it down helps it not get stuck in my mind and cause me to want to bite my nails instead.

There is a lot of overlap here with worry too. Sometimes when I am worried, I take out a pen and paper and write a list called “Things on My Mind.” I’ve had these numbered lists be up to 192 things long. I know this is crazy, but I guess it goes to show how endless our minds are.

Instead of worrying and nailbiting, I've found several healthy alternatives. These include: meditation, writing, hiking, taking a walk, reading and playing outside.

I know changing any bad habit is challenging, but I hope this process can be helpful for you:

  1. Notice The Problem
  2. Get Around The Shame
  3. Be Compassionate With Yourself
  4. Have a Mindful Moment
  5. Be Present
  6. Be Around Positive People
  7. Enjoy a New Healthy Habit

Good luck!