The line between feeling empathy for others and taking on their problems as if they are our own is a lot finer than we think. If you often worry about the people in your life, you know how draining it is to occupy yourself with their struggles in addition to your own. Unfortunately, worrying about others doesn’t exactly have an off switch.
No matter how much time or energy you spend worrying over someone else’s suffering, it does nothing to reduce the pain they experience. All you’re doing is causing yourself to needlessly suffer along with them. So why does it feel impossible to stop even when you know worrying about others solves nothing? It turns out humans are wired to worry. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t control the extent and frequency of our worries.
Although worrying is inherently human, we can still take steps to mitigate its negative impact on our lives. In this article, I’ll explore why some of us simply can’t help but worry about others, and strategies to help you manage this well-intentioned but ultimately self-harming tendency.
Why we naturally worry about others
Everyone worries, but some people worry significantly more than others. Along with worrying about their own life, they can’t resist the tendency to worry about other people as well. It appears this natural inclination to worry might just be human nature.
It’s possible that humans have a predisposition to worry as a species due to a mismatch in our environment. Our brains are designed for an environment in which our actions result in immediate outcomes. Now that we live in an environment where our actions do not produce instant results, our brains can’t help but worry about uncertainty.
Conversely, a study found that people worry for two possible reasons. The first is because they believe that worrying can prevent negative events from happening and minimize its harmful effects if it does happen. The second reason is the belief that worrying offers greater control and the ability to find a solution.
Humans are social beings by nature. It only makes sense that we naturally extend our tendency to worry to encompass others. However, our ability to deeply connect with other humans emotionally and share their painful emotions could result in harmful consequences for our health.
The futility of worrying
The most frustrating thing about worrying is that it solves nothing. Most of us understand this, and yet, we continue to worry about others in spite of its harmful effects on our health. Research shows that worrying is associated with several mental health disorders and is detrimental to your physical health.
Worry is the interest you pay on a debt you may not owe.Keith Caserta
A recent study on the mental health of Swiss undergraduate students during the pandemic found that those who worry more about the health of their family and friends are more likely to experience depression and higher stress levels.
Worrying about the health of their loved ones resulted in adverse effects on the students’ mental health. Moreover, worrying about the health of their family and friends in the midst of a pandemic beyond their control will not protect them from the disease.
How to stop worrying about others
Most of us know that worrying about other people does nothing to solve their problems or alleviate their pain, but we just can’t help it. The good news is that while worry is not completely avoidable, you can reduce its negative effects on your well-being using a few strategies.
1. Give the worrisome thoughts space to breathe
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t worrying the exact opposite of what we want to do? The reality is that sometimes, worrying is an inevitable part of caring. Life is full of ups and downs. As much as we wish we could, we can’t protect the people we love from every devastating event in their life.
You can’t stop the rain by worrying about it.Tadahiko Nagao
For example, if you find out your child is being bullied at school or your friend is going through a difficult divorce, it’s simply unrealistic to expect yourself to not worry about them. Instead of suppressing the worry, give it the space it needs to breathe. It’s typically better to feel the negative emotion as soon as it arises rather than to dismiss it. This only causes the emotion to fester and resurface later on.
Sit with the worry for a few minutes, refrain from judgment, and allow it to run its course unobstructed. Simply listen to what it’s trying to tell you. If you’re lucky, the worry might dissipate afterward. If it continues to unwantedly take up mental space, it’s time to try another strategy.
2. Imagine yourself talking to your worry
This might sound strange, but try to imagine yourself having a conversation with your worrisome thoughts. After listening to what the emotion has to say, picture yourself reasoning with it.
Speak to your worry the way you would speak to a friend having a panic attack. Calm it down, and ground the emotion back to reality. Some things you can try saying to your worry when it spirals are:
- “Worrying about them will not ease their suffering in any way.”
- “I cannot protect that person from every bad thing in life, and it is not my responsibility to do so.”
- “I trust that person to be strong and capable enough to overcome their own problems.”
- “The best I can do is support them in any way I can, but worrying about them will solve nothing.”
- “It is okay to be concerned about them, but I am only causing myself harm by treating their problems as if they are my own.”
3. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries is an essential skill to learn in life, but particularly if you are an empath or a highly sensitive person. Those who instinctively absorb the emotions of others might find it more difficult to not worry about the problems of other people. If this is the case, it’s important to learn how to set boundaries for yourself and your mental health.
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.Brené Brown
It’s perfectly okay to admit to others when you lack the emotional or mental capacity to listen to them vent about their problems. There is nothing selfish about setting boundaries. It doesn’t make you any less loving or supportive. However, it can help you to stop worrying about others when you’re already worrying about your own issues.
Setting your own boundaries might even encourage the other person to do the same.
One of the best ways to release the burden of worrying about others is to simply write it down. The benefits of journaling are endless, but in the case of unrelenting worries, it can be especially therapeutic. Writing it down might help alleviate your concerns about others and their struggles.
Sometimes, your worries just need a place to go.
Journaling also helps distinguish your worries about others from your own. Since the practice of expressing your thoughts and emotions through writing often improves self-awareness, there’s a good chance it’ll help you realize the futility of worrying about someone else’s problems.
Here are a few possible journal prompts to explore when you want to stop worrying about others:
- Why am I overly concerned about this person and their issues?
- Is their pain triggering a similar hurt that I currently feel or have experienced in the past and require healing?
- Do I believe this person is capable of handling their own problems?
- What else can I do for this person instead of suffering along with them by worrying?
- Do I have the mental and emotional capacity to continue providing emotional support to this person?
5. Have a conversation with the person you’re worried about
Talking to the person you’re deeply concerned about is probably the root cause of your worries in the first place, but it could potentially be the solution as well. In some instances, we worry about others because we’re not sure if they have the ability to cope with whatever adversity they face. In that case, a simple conversation with them might ease your worries.
At times, all we need is reassurance that the person we’re worried about will be okay. Checking up on them and discussing the steps they’re taking to solve their own problems might put your worries to rest once and for all. Of course, this strategy only works if the person you’re worried about is handling things better than you thought.
In the event that the person is not coping well emotionally or mentally, it might be time to ask them to consider seeking professional help. This can ensure they receive the proper support and relieve you from your worries as well.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
This Cheat Sheet Will Help You Be Happier and More Productive
Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 unique tips for your mental health.
Worrying about others demonstrates your amazing ability to care and connect emotionally. However, the negative effect of worrying means that this capacity to absorb their worries as your own is destructive to your health. It might be difficult to manage your worries at first, but it can be done. Humans might be wired to worry, but you must not allow your worries to consume you.
Do you want to share your own positive change that you applied in your life? Did I miss an awesome tip that you used to be happier in an instance? I’d love to hear in the comments below!