Everyone worries from time to time. Worry can even be helpful when it motivates us to solve problems. But when we are preoccupied with “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, or with that over which we have little or no control, worry no longer serves us. For some, excessive worry can cause significant distress and impair their ability to function.
What is Worry?
Worry is defined as preoccupation with imagined negative future events. The feared events associated with worry tend to be specific; someone might worry that they will be late to the airport, that they will lose their job, or that their partner will be unfaithful. Worry is sometimes associated with physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. Worry, when it is difficult to control, can be upsetting, paralyzing, and exhausting.
Suppression Doesn’t Work
Have you ever tried to stop worry in its tracks? You may have found that telling yourself to stop worrying does not tend to be effective. If you repeatedly say to yourself, “Stop worrying about the bills,” in effect, all this does is bring more attention to worrying about the bills.
When your brain comes up with a worry, it is trying to do you a favor by alerting you to potential danger. When you make efforts to ignore the worry, it will inevitably return soon enough. Thus, instead of attempting to suppress your worries, try “postponing” them to a designated “worry time” every day.
Make an Appointment with Yourself to Worry
Tell yourself, “I have more important things to do than worry right now, but I give myself permission to worry for 30 minutes at 7:00 PM.” Make a note of your worry so you don’t forget about it. Then, at your designated worry time, sit down in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Come back to the worries you wrote down throughout the day. You might find that some of your worries no longer feel important. Only take the time the think through the worries that still feel “big”.
Keep in mind that we sometimes have control over the things we worry about, and sometimes we don’t. It’s important to make this distinction during your worry time.
When you do have control over the issue that worries you, use your worry time to think through potential solutions and come up with a plan. If you do not have control over whatever you are worrying about, ask yourself three questions:
- Am I overestimating the likelihood that this will occur? What evidence do I have that this is likely to happen? What evidence do I have that it is not?
- If it is likely to occur, am I imagining the worst possible outcome? Are there alternative outcomes that are more likely?
- Even if the worst does happen, am I underestimating my ability to handle it? What are the resources I have available to me that suggest I could make it through this?
Practice this every day at the same time and in the same place. As you develop the ability to postpone your worries to a specific time, then effectively work through them to find a resolution, you may begin to find that you have more control over your worries than you might have thought.
Help is Available
While scheduling your worry time may be a first step toward feeling more in control, it may not be the end of the story for you. If you often find yourself preoccupied with and unsettled by your worries, meeting with a licensed therapist may be helpful.