So why do we worry about things? It is not a pleasant thing to do. Worries bother us! We can’t sleep or concentrate because of pessimistic thoughts going round and around in our head, but in a way, worries make sense as they pull us in to a false sense of feeling in control. We’re doing something, even if it is just worrying.
I think people continue to worry because the mind thinks:
- Maybe I’ll find a solution.
- I don’t want to overlook anything.
- If I keep thinking a little longer, maybe I’ll figure it out.
- I don’t want to be surprised. If I consider all the possible outcomes, I’ll be more in control when something bad happens.
We can have a hard time giving up on our worries because, in a sense, our worries have been working for us.
Recent research has looked at how brain chemicals effect your emotions and how your genes may give you at a predisposition to getting anxiety. We often see that worrying runs in the family.
I think, and many psychologists agree, that it is a mix of DNA, your environment and the current stressors you are experiencing, as well as brain chemistry that affect whether you get it or not. Anyone can develop anxiety too and at any age.
When I talk with my clients and ask them about their first memory of experiencing feeling anxious, they often trace it back to late childhood or teenage years. Others link it to major life events such as going off to college or becoming a parent for the first time.
The important thing to remember is that you can learn tools to reduce worrying and below I identify 3 tried and tested strategies.
Strategy 1. Learn how to distinguish between worries that require your attention and worries that are unnecessary.
The following questions can help you clarify this:
“Can I do something about this problem?”
“Is this something I always worry about, but nothing ever happens?”
“Is this something that has a solution?”
“Will my worrying make this situation better or worse or have no effect at all?”
- If there is something you can do about the problem, take action or consciously choose not to take action. People often delay or avoid taking action or making decisions because they are worried about making a mistake.
- If there is nothing you can do, worrying does not make the situation better. Tell yourself that your worries are not helpful and let them go. I know this is easier said than done, but it can improve with practice. It can help to challenge your thoughts about the worry and ask yourself, “Where’s the evidence for that?” or “What would be so bad about that?” or “Is this problem so important that I should spend all my time thinking about it?”
Strategy 2: Reduce a worry’s power over you by getting the thoughts out of your head and on to paper.
Being able to see the worry in black and white helps give you more perspective.
Study your worries by keeping a worry diary. Write down what you fear might happen (be as specific as possible) and then later write down if what you were worried about actually happened, whether it was as bad as you expected, and what you did to cope with the situation.
This will help you understand your worries better, distinguish between worries that are useful and those that are useless (strategy 1), and help you realize that you can cope no matter what happens (strategy 3).
- Set aside some time during the day to worry— your “worry time”. Select a time every day that is convenient for you and pick a suitable amount of time to worry (half an hour, one hour). Use this time to think about your worries and about possible resolutions. It can be helpful to write things down. It will take time to train yourself not to dwell on worries at other times of the day or night.
- Practice is key here. What you can do if you worry outside of the set aside time is to write the worry down and put it in a “worry box” (you can use an empty tissue box for this or write the worry in a list you keep on your smart phone). Then, when it’s your official worry time, you can look at your worries and deal with them appropriately.
- Keep a pen and a pad of paper for worries that come to you at night. Night worries can go round and around in our head as it seems so important at the time to remember them. This can cause adrenaline levels to start rising in your body which of course, keeps you awake and your thoughts racing more. Writing the worry down and then distracting yourself (read using a book light or do a relaxation techniques) calms you physically and mentally, allowing you to get to sleep.
Strategy 3: Don’t let fear of what might happen hold you back.
Unfortunately, we can’t predict the future, so in every decision we make there is a chance that it may or may not go well. The important thing to remember is that whatever happens, you will be able to deal with it.
The more you avoid something you are worried about, the bigger and scarier the fear grows.
I always ask my clients to write out, in detail, the situation they are fearing, where they are now in addressing it and what are the baby steps to get to the desired goal.
For example, Jenny (not her real name) had been in her current job for 8 years and was bored and unfulfilled and there was no opportunity for promotion. She knew the best thing to do was change jobs but she was held back by her worry that another job would be too difficult to get. She was also scared of the thought of interviewing and was concerned that other employers would not be interested in hiring her.
Using the baby steps techniques, she evaluated her fear about getting a new job is a 9/10 and evaluating and writing down her current skill set as a 1/10 (on a 10 pt scale with 1 not worried, 10 overwhelmingly worried).
So we discussed baby steps that are involved in getting a new job and how worried she was about each step. Then we ordered the steps in increase level of worry. This is called a hierarchy of worries and below is Jenny’s hierarchy of worries relating to job change.
a) Research what good resumes look like – it was a long time since she wrote one (2/10)
b) Go online and search for jobs in her job market (2/10)
c) Write her new basic resume based on current skills (3/10)
d) Self-evaluate whether she needs to learn new skills (4/10)
e) Tweak resume for actual position advertised (4/10)
f) Take on new projects at work or work with boss and say you would like to learn xyz…. (7/10)
g) Find out if there is an opportunity to move to a different department in the same company to build on her skill set. Talk to other people in different departments (7/10)
h) Apply for a job (8/10)
i) Role play a mock interview/telephone interview was the next step in the progression but was only a (8/10)
j) Go to interview (10/10)
As you can see, worry levels can sometimes be the same for multiple steps in the process. By the time she actually got to h) it was no longer at an 8/10 intensity because she had become more confident as she progressed through the earlier steps. Of course the actual interview for a new job was stressful, but she was able to do it whereas at the beginning of the process she was stuck and couldn’t imagine getting to that stage.
This process can be applied to any situation!
With each baby step your confidence grows so you are not jumping from a 2/10 step to an 8/10 step, you are progressing from a 2/10 to a 3/10 etc.. This makes each progressing step much more manageable and much less scary.
The only way to decrease worry about making mistakes is to learn that you can cope with making them. Set a time limit for making a decision, write down your reasons for making the decision, and then follow through. Keeping a decision-making diary (similar to the worry diary described above) can help during this process.
It can help to imagine a situation that is worrying you and then imagine yourself being able to cope well in it. Pay attention to how you feel when you successfully cope in a situation.
When clients first come in to see me, the main concerns that come up again and again are:
How can I feel less stressed, angry and overwhelmed?
What should I do if I feel panicky?
How can I stop worrying about everything: my children, partner, friends, work, my “to do” list….
So I put together a booklet with some strategies I am always giving to my clients to help them begin to feel less anxiety and to worry less.
I hope that you will find it helpful too.
Add your first name and email address in the box below and you will be sent the steps to download your FREE book.
If you would like to work with me to understand why you are feeling anxious and learn effective coping strategies that reduce anxiety, please phone me at 847 791-7722 or email me below.
Dr. Allen has over 25 years experience and specializes in helping people treat their anxiety. Her professional license allows her to offer phone and video appointments to people living in Illinois and Florida.
If you would like to read more about her please visit her Bio page Dr. Sarah Allen Bio. To read media articles she was been interviewed for visit her Media Interviews page. She has many other blog post about anxiety and worrying Dr. Sarah Allen Anxiety Blog Posts.