By Joan Swart, PsyD, MBA
The nature of worry
As we have seen in previous articles, worry comes in two guises, namely feeling anxious about the future and ruminating about the past. Often, neither contributes anything positive, but it is an automatic mechanism to help us feel in control of our destiny. We spend much of our waking time brooding about mistakes and regrets that we cannot change and nervously anticipating oncoming problems. Like a deer in headlights, we are blinded by what we cannot change, in the desperate hope of making it go away. So, why do we worry?
Why do we worry?
Worry is a remnant of the development of humans through the ages. By brooding over health, finances, family, relationships, and work, we try to adapt to the challenges that we face. In a way, our minds are constantly busy trying to keep us safe and happy and avoid bad things happening to us. But, when worry becomes so disruptive and distressing that it interferes with our daily functioning and health, it is time to do something to prevent becoming stuck in an unhealthy spiral. So, what can we do?
Make a pact with yourself
The first thing to do is to be aware of your worry. Every time that you catch yourself feeling anxious about the past or future, stop for a moment, and remind yourself, “I’m worrying.” This is an important first step to make sure that it doesn’t continue to sneak up on you and control your life. Then, make a conscious pact, or agreement, with yourself to set the worry aside, immediately, at least for the moment. This may seem easier said than done! So, how do we achieve this without becoming frustrated or even more anxious?
Create a worry period
We learn to set aside a specific time and place for worry. For example, if you’re keeping a daily journal, it is probably a good idea to explore your worries when you make an entry each day. Use the time objectively to consider whether the worries are warranted and possible solutions. Or, use a walk outside or a quiet time alone at home to remember the objects of your agony to contemplate each, maybe while you’re listening to calming music or drinking tea. The essential part is that you have a regular 10 or 30 minutes set aside, just to think through potential issues. However, only use you worry period if you feel you “must” worry. And, if you do, you don’t necessarily have to problem-solve.
Postpone your worry
Creating, and keeping to, a worry period means that you must deliberately and persistently set aside worries when you become aware of them outside of your worry period. Whenever you recognize a troubling thought, say “that’s a worry,” take a deep breath, and expel it from your mind, for now, reminding yourself to return to it (if necessary) during your preset worry period. In effect, as thoughts naturally enter and leave our mind quickly, just acknowledge each worry for the moment, don’t cling to it, and it will disappear in a heartbeat.
Pushing your worry to the limits
Another proven technique is to go ahead and really dwell on a worry during your worry period. Engage your worry process fully, focus as much as you can on the worry, really catastrophize, and see where it takes you. Chances are that such a “loss-of-control” test will only make you see that pushing your worry does not make it more real or valid. In fact, you will probably come to realize that you are exaggerating, that the problem is not that bad or may not even occur.
Benefits of worry postponement
The most important benefit of postponing your worries is that you let time pass between your impulse and your action. You don’t instantly begin that vicious cycle of reacting emotionally and assuming the risk of making bad decisions or eliciting negative responses from others. Also, the more time passes, the more opportunity you have to consider appropriate solutions or to realize that your initial obsession and attention were not worth it. This creates more chance your anxiety will diminish and your control returns.