Over the years, I’ve had a lot of clients who called themselves “worriers”. They often reported to me that worry kept them up at night, impeded their ability to excel at work or school, and had negative impacts on their relationships. They described hours of back-and-forth thoughts as they tried to make choices and then regularly continued to debate and doubt their eventual decision for long after the fact. As I thought of how much hard work all these people were putting into worrying, I came to realize something.
They weren’t worriers, they were warriors.
They were fighting a battle every day against their own anxiety. In many ways, we all are. I know I’ve stood in the aisle of many a store for far longer than necessary, debating what feels like should be a simple choice with myself. Which storage box would be most useful…the 6×10 or the 8×10? Which color bed sheets, plum or tan? The reality is that it isn’t about a successful utilization of space or which color would make my bedroom feel more serene as much as it is about making a choice we will later regret.
The anticipation of regret can be a powerful motivator in our lives, leading us to keep ourselves in the same pattern of behavior and away from new, possibly exciting, experiences. In fact, we will sometimes even stick with known patterns of behavior that we are deeply unhappy with instead of changing course. Our situation may be awful, but it’s the devil we know and our worry about the uncertainty of change can keep us stuck for a long time. It’s why we stay in jobs we are miserable in, relationships that cause more hurt than joy, and don’t always jump at opportunities when they present themselves. We regret the next job will be even worse, that we won’t find a better relationship or that the opportunity will fail our expectations.
So, how to get over the worry habit?
Pick a time and a place.
This is a form of stimulus control – by choosing a time and location, we are decreasing the association of worry with other places (such as bed, work and while socializing) in favor of the time and place we designate. Further, restricting our worry in this way allows us to start to establish more control over it, even if it simply means delaying it for a little while.
Set your clock.
Get a timer and allow yourself 30 minutes of indulging in your worries. You can write them down, rank them on a scale or assign them some other value of importance. Do not do anything else during this half-hour. It’s only for you and your worries (note, do not do this right before bed or in bed, pick a time around mid-day and a neutral location, like sitting at a table). If you find a worry popping up outside of this worry-time, jot it down as a reminder, but put off the actual worry until your selected time comes around. This can often help us realize how limited our worry really is. After all, most of us worry about the same topics over and over, but it can feel like we are worried about everything. Seeing how much worry we can plow though in a set amount of time allows us to experience it as it really is – just a small part of our day.
At the end of a week, go back over your collection of worry lists and note any recurring themes or topics. Then ask yourself the following questions: Are these worries about uncertainties – things that might happen? What are the actual probabilities associated with my worries? Can I do anything about these worries? Are they worth my time and energy?
Categorize your worry.
Try to separate your worries into productive and unproductive lists. The productive worries are the ones you can do something about. For example, if you are moving, productive worry asks “Do I have enough boxes?”, “Where do I get a truck?”, “Who will help me with the labor?”. They are worries that can lead to action. Unproductive worry asks “What if there’s a house fire?”, “What if the moving truck gets in an accident?”, “What if it rains and all my belongings get ruined?”. They are usually about events with a very low probability and don’t often lead to action.
Once you have your worries separated, focus on the ones that you can create a to-do list or action plan for. As for the rest of them – gently remind yourself that they are unlikely and you are just hurting yourself by returning to them. And then turn back to action.