How to reduce your worry thoughts

planner on a ipad Everyone worries about things sometimes, but anxious people tend to have a lot of worry thoughts. Some worries are helpful (e.g. for planning, motivating action, or considering others’ feelings) and we call these productive worries, but many worries are unproductive (e.g. worries that generate “what ifs” that do not lead to concrete, practical actions). Even when we know our worries are unproductive we can still find ourselves stuck worrying about them.

Unproductive worry is based on three beliefs:

  1. "If I have worry, then it is important and I should dwell on it"
  2. "If I have worry, then I need to identify all the possible solutions"
  3. "I cannot accept uncertainty"

Productive worry involves:

  1. Identifying a problem that is plausible or reasonable
    • Ask yourself “Would someone else worry about this? Is it likely to happen?
  2. Decide if it’s a problem that you can do something about right now (or very soon)
    • Ask yourself “Is there anything I can do right now?”
    • Productive worries become productive solutions almost immediately
  3. Quickly move from worry about the problem to finding solutions to it
    • Consider if there are plausible and reasonable actions to take

No one can just stop worrying. Trying to do so can actually increase your thinking about your worrying. Instead, you can find some ways to worry more effectively. Evaluating your thoughts to figure out if your worries are productive or unproductive is a good first step. Once you’ve distinguished what type of worrying you are having, try to let go of unproductive thinking as best you can, using mindfulness or thought redirection. Ask yourself, what would I tell a friend who was having this worry? If you find your worries are productive worries, then set aside some time to turn your worries into problem-solving as soon as you can.

Worry strategies – Scheduling worry time

If you have lots of these unproductive worries that you can’t take action on right away, try to notice them as they arise and then set them aside (taking a mindful moment can help you set them aside). Then schedule yourself some daily time to worry.

During your scheduled worry time, write down all of these unhelpful worries, allowing yourself to follow them and exhaust all the possible conclusions. If you run out of worries during your worry time, start over at the beginning until you have spent your allotted 15-20 minutes. Repeat your worry time daily for at least two weeks.

Worry time can help you get perspective on your unhelpful worries. Perhaps, you will find ways to turn the unhelpful worries into positive problem solving about actions you can take in the immediate future or you may find that you get bored of your worries or that worrying isn’t as helpful as you thought when you have to dedicate a solid amount of time to your worries each day.

Tip: It is important when you are scheduling your worry time to consider where and when you will worry. Try not to do worry time in your bedroom or just before bed, so that you don’t associate worry with where you sleep.

Worry strategy – Thought probability challenging

If you are regularly an anxious person, you might spend a lot of time thinking about “what if” questions or scenarios and continuing that thinking to a worst case scenario conclusion. We often start with a situation that might be otherwise ordinary (e.g. stress about an upcoming exam) and magnify the consequences or outcomes in our mind.

Because anxiety inflates the probability of something bad happening and we tend to inflate the probability of consequences we imagine, it can be helpful to step back and examine the actual probabilities of events. Your past positive or neutral experiences can often provide you with more realistic evidence of actual probabilities. When we examine our feared outcomes, we are likely to find our anxiety is generally related to low probability events.

Oftentimes our anxiety centres around a series of events that have to happen in order for our worst feared outcome of consequence to occur. We spend so much time worrying about what could go wrong, without examining each assumption and the more realistic likelihood of each of those things happening.

Example: Think about the worry scenario “I’m going to fail my exams, get kicked out of my program, never be able to get a job, and be destitute.” Now consider the steps that would have to happen to arrive at that end scenario. You would need to 1) not study for any exams, 2) not attend your classes, 3) Know insufficient content for your exams, 4) Actually fail your exams, 5) Not complete your assignments, 6) Receive failing grades on all your courses, 7) Be removed from your program temporarily, 8) Not be able to return to school after your time off, 9) Not be able to secure good references for employment, 10) Not be able to get a job, resulting in destitution.

Think about what the probability of all ten of these steps happening? Or even one?

Think about your personal habits and performance in the past in context with these worries. Work through the probability and apply coping thoughts like the following example:

“I spend a lot of time worrying about this, to the point that it actually interrupts my ability to focus and study. But in order to fail, I actually have to not study at all or attend any classes, and that is very unlikely based on what I know about my habits and past performance. Given my past minimal experience with failure, I know that failing a test isn’t really likely, let alone failing out of my program entirely. It is even less likely that this would lead to all the other fears I have. I know that I will still be able to have a good future and find a job.”

Give yourself time to put these strategies in practice

Just like you can’t get fit by going to the gym once, worry strategies take consistent time and practice to implement in your life. If you choose to practice worry time, put a calendar reminder in your phone every day to get yourself in the habit of doing it. For both habits, write “Scheduled worry time” and “Thought probability challenging” in the bottom corner of every week of your planner or bullet journal to remind yourself of these valuable tools when things get busy.

If you’d like to learn more about either of these strategies and more, consider taking our Alleviating Anxiety seminar sometime this term.

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