We Are Wired to Worry, But We Can Calm Down

Our brains run a background program of regrets, worries, and dreams, but we can turn it off
January 27, 2020 Updated: January 27, 2020
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A new year brings both hopes and anxieties. We want things to be better for ourselves and the people we love, but worry that they won’t be, and imagine some of the things that might stand in the way.

Humans are wired to worry. Our brains are continually imagining futures that will meet our needs and things that could stand in the way of them.

Worry is when this planning and imagining occupies our attention to no good effect. Tension, sleepless nights, and distraction are the result. Worry’s effects are endless, but there are ways to tame it.

As a professor of medicine and population and quantitative health sciences, I’ve researched and taught mind-body principles to both physicians and patients. I’ve found that there are many methods of quieting the mind and that most of them draw on just a few straightforward principles.

Sabotaging the Happier Present

We’ve all experienced moments of flow, times when our attention is effortlessly absorbed in what we are doing. Studies confirm an increase in happiness when people can focus attention on what they are doing, rather than when their minds are wandering. It may seem odd then that we leave our minds to wander for something like half the day, despite the happiness cost.

The reason can be found in systems of the brain that function in the background of consciousness, envisaging futures compatible with our needs and desires—and planning how those might be brought about.

But there’s a downside to this process: anxiety. Sometimes envisaging the future becomes an endless stream of worrying thoughts about what could go wrong. Studies have shown that some people prefer electric shocks to being left alone with their thoughts. Perhaps this is why.

Our background thinking is essential to operating in the world, but we suffer from unease when, unnoticed, it takes up too much mental space.

Mindfulness, the practice of observing our mind’s activity, offers real-time insight into this feature of our mental operating system and a grants us a capacity to self-regulate it.

How we use our attention is central to our emotional well-being, and many mind-body programs are based on training our minds to be more able to focus and dial down that background thinking.

Mindfulness training, for example, asks students to direct their attention to the sensations of breathing. That may seem easy, but the mind resists, tenaciously. So, despite repeated resolve, a person finds that, within seconds, their attention has returned to planning daydreams.

Just recognizing this feature is progress.

When you do manage to notice these thoughts with some detachment, you will also notice their dogged concern with past and future.

We begin to notice that this hoping, comparing, and regretting is often concerned with family and friends, job and money—themes of relationship, status, and power that are central to our survival and success.

Our Bodies Take Notice

Traditional meditation teachings attribute our everyday unease to the bodily tightening that naturally accompanies fearful thoughts surrounding the possibility of loss, failure, and unfulfilled dreams. It’s a tension that is often unnoticed in the midst of managing everyday demands, but this background discomfort sends us seeking relief in something more pleasant like a snack, screen, drink, or drug.

Mindfulness makes us more aware of these preoccupations and reorients our attention to the senses. Senses, by their nature, are rooted in the present—hence the almost clichéd “being in the moment” idiom.

So, when you notice yourself tense and preoccupied with anxious thoughts, try shifting your attention to the sensations of your breathing, wherever you notice it in your body. Bodily tension naturally dissipates with this shift in focus, and a feeling of greater calm follows. Don’t expect attention to stay there; it won’t. Just notice that attention goes back to worries, and gently return it to breathing.

Try it for just a couple of minutes.

Other Methods, Similar Principles

It would be nearly impossible to design studies comparing all the techniques that cultivate mindfulness. Humans around the world have sought elevated mental states for millennia. But my more than four decades of experience as a practitioner, clinician, and researcher of several popular mind-body programs suggests that most techniques use similar principles to recover the present moment.

Yoga and tai chi, for example, direct attention to the flow of sensations accompanying the sequence of movements. In contrast, systems such as cognitive therapy, self-compassion, prayer, and visualization counter the background thinking’s unsettling tone with more reassuring thoughts and images.

Just a little practice will improve your ability to shift your mind you become happier as the here and now becomes woven into the fabric of everyday life.

 is a professor of medicine and population health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This article was originally published on The Conversation.