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I Can’t Stop Worrying! … Or Can I?

Dr. Amanda Beaman, C.Psych

 

As a therapist who has spent several years working in a hospital-based anxiety clinic, and over a decade in private practice, I have heard clients say “I can’t stop worrying” or “I can’t help worrying” thousands of times.  Research shows that people who worry excessively tend to hold a number of unhelpful beliefs about worry.  One of these unhelpful beliefs is that worry is out of their control.

In our last article in the Everyday Mental Health Series: Working with Worry, we introduced the concepts of productive and unproductive worry .  If you haven’t already, it is highly recommended that you read that article, and spend some time tracking your worries.  Learning to distinguish between productive and unproductive worry is the first step to gaining more control.  If you did track your worries, you likely noticed that most of them were unproductive.  Once we’ve taken the time to become aware of what we are thinking, and then separate out our unproductive worries from the productive ones, we open up new possibilities.  Namely, the possibility of choosing how we will relate to our unproductive worries rather than being a victim of automatic, and unhelpful reactions to them.

One of the effective ways that we can choose to relate to an unproductive worry is to delay or postpone thinking more about it.  While we can’t control what initially pops into our head, we just might have control over what happens next.  Research shows that worry postponement can be a very effective strategy, leading to significant reductions in anxiety.  We know that left untouched (i.e. not focused and elaborated on), many worries will disintegrate on their own.  Kind of like sand slipping between our fingers.  Many of us need a way of buying ourselves some time to allow this natural process to occur- this is what the worry postponement strategy offers. You might be thinking “yeah right, if it was that easy I would have done it already!” However, I am willing to bet that you have postponed thinking about unproductive worries many times, you were just unaware that you did it!  Let’s illustrate with an example:

Imagine it is early in the morning, and you have woken up a few minutes before your alarm.  You start to worry about your health after reading about a person on Instagram who was your age and died suddenly of a heart attack.  As you are lying there you are thinking- “what if I died suddenly?.. my kids wouldn’t be able to cope, it would change their life trajectory, my partner would be so stressed……”  this line of thinking could go on for a while, spiraling further and further downward.    Before you know it you could be experiencing physical signs of anxiety such as a tight stomach or racing heart.  However, let’s imagine that the alarm goes off right after you read the story.  Chances are this would interrupt the chain of worry, because your attention would be pulled back to the present moment as you focus on the immediate tasks ahead to get ready for the day.

Worry postponement is something we all do, likely multiple times in any given day.  It is a capacity that resides in all of us, we just don’t practice it enough!

I understand that this might sound too simplistic to you, especially if you’ve been worrying for some time.  My invitation to you is to give it a good college try for a week and record your observations.  Let’s experiment with the possibility that you have more control over worrying than you think!!

Before you get started with this experiment, there is an important distinction to make.  Postponing worry isn’t the same as suppressing worry.  We are not trying to eradicate worries from our mind through Herculean efforts of mind control or by using distraction! We know that suppressing worry (i.e. pushing thoughts out of our mind) can have a rebound effect.  Instead, when we postpone, we first acknowledge the worry by writing it down, and then we choose to think about it later.  This is a mindful and deliberate process. Below are the instructions for postponing worry:

Please review the article about productive and unproductive worry before you start. Everyday Mental Health Series: Working with Worry.

Step 1. Postpone Unproductive Worries to Your Worry Period

  • Get a notebook or set up an electronic note page in your device to record worries throughout your day
  • When you catch the beginning of an unproductive worry, remind yourself that you will have time later on to think about that worry. Write it down.
  • Write down the topic in a few words only, in case you are worried that you might forget the worry before you get to your worry period.

Step 2. Worry Period

  • Start by scheduling a daily worry time – it should be a limited period of time (e.g. 30 min maximum) It may be useful to limit the occurrence to one place and one time of day.
  • Choose a time that is convenient each day, so you are rarely busy with something else that might prevent you from using your worry period. Try to avoid choosing a time that is too close to bedtime, to prevent associating worry with going to sleep.
  • Choose a unique place for your worry period- e.g. a chair you rarely sit in
  • During your worry period, pull out the notes you’ve kept about your worries
  • Examine them, you can worry about them some more, or challenge them with alternative ways of thinking about the situation “we are what we think”
  • Once your worry time has ended, carry on with your business and if the worries want to persist gently remind yourself that you can worry about things tomorrow at the scheduled time.

 

Good Luck!!