How to worry less

by | Nov 18, 2019 | Leadership

The second webinar of the 4-part series I ran back in the summer, Confidence for Women in Finance, was all about how to build a confident mindset. One participant asked the question, how do you tell the difference between whether you’re worrying, or thinking productively?

It’s a good question. There’s a benefit from, for example, thinking through how you’re going to deal with a particular challenge such as taking on a new team or a piece of work with a demanding client. It’s useful to think about potential obstacles you need to overcome in the light of what you want/need to achieve and what that means in terms of a way forward.

Worry : The M25 of Thinking

Worrying, on the other hand, is an exclusively negative type of thinking that goes nowhere. It’s when you’re thinking about all the things you might have done wrong or might be doing wrong or that could go wrong. Worrying is thinking the worst with no evidence and no attempt to find evidence.

For example, you worry about how you came across in a meeting, selecting memories that support a negative conclusion and believing that this worst case scenario must be true. Worrying is repetitive and circular – in fact, it’s a bit like going round and round the M25 (the London Orbital Motorway) without turning off.

Why we worry

Our thoughts are an evolutionary legacy to keep us safe when our brain perceives a threat – real or imagined – and sources say that 70-80% of our thoughts are negative, so that’s not a great start in terms of our tendency to worry.

The Confidence Code is a fascinating book which explores the phenomenon of confidence – and anxiety – with reference to a multitude of scientific studies. The authors share research that tells us that some people are born more anxious than others and this anxiety can exacerbate or reduce depending on our upbringing. However, neuroscientists claim that only 25 – 50% of confidence is genetic, which means we have the power to turn around up to 75% of our tendency to anxiety.

Is there a difference between men and women?

Research points to women having a greater tendency to rumination than men. Dr Daniel Amen, for example, claims that women’s brains have 30% more activity than men’s but that the downside of this can be a greater tendency to anxiety and rumination.

How to get off the M25 of worry

You can address worry, and the first step is to become aware of your thoughts. It’s a bit like you’re speeding along in the outside lane of the M25 (I know that’s unusual given its reputation) with your mind on what you’re having for dinner and then you see a police car. You suddenly become conscious of your speed and focus on the road ahead.

Once you know what’s in your head, you need to decide whether this is a thought worth paying attention to.  is this a helpful or an unhelpful thought? For example, thinking, “I’m not up to this” as you’re given a challenging project at work is not helpful. However, thinking, “I’m not sure how to go about approaching this project” may be helpful to you as it’s indicating that you may need to devote some time to thinking about a way forward and/or seeking support or resources from others.

The 3Rs

Here’s an easy-to-remember 3-step process – the 3Rs – to stop worrying at the pass :

  1. Reject. Is it an unhelpful thought? For example, “I’m not good enough”? Dismiss it. Decide not to entertain it. Don’t give it the time of day. Shift your attention from it.
  2. Reframe. How can you turn the thought around? For example, rather than, “The CFO obviously thought my report was substandard”, tune into the evidence you have and reframe it in a more positive way. For example, “The CFO corrected one element of my report but 90% of it was well-received.” or “I’ve only been in role for 2 weeks – I did pretty well, considering.”
  3. Reach Out. What assumptions are you making that you need to test out? For example, if you’re not sure how you’re perceived, who can you reach out to for feedback?

I will leave you with a quote from the 14th Dalai Lama : “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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