Written by Philippa Walsh
Are you worried about worrying?
This is a common concern for those who frequently worry. Worrying can serve us well by helping to prepare us for a real situation; but less so if the worry concerns a hypothetical event or imagined / feared scenario. The problem with worrying is that it saps us of our mental energy and is not an effective strategy for solving problems; particularly if the worry is about an outcome that hasn't actually happened.
Real worries versus hypothetical worries
Knowing the difference between situations that require us to worry and those that don't is essential if we want to learn how to worry less. Pause and notice what it is that you're actually worrying about. Are you worrying about something that has happened? Or do you find yourself worrying about 'what if?' scenarios.
Things that have already happened such as under performance in an exam or not having enough money to cover an unanticipated bill, can justifiably provoke worry. In these situations, worry can motivate us to go into problem solving mode to find appropriate ways to resolve them.
Re-sitting an exam or offering to pay the bill by installments are possible resolutions - but imagining failing an exam before its been taken or fearing being fired and having no income just because of a scheduled meeting with a manager is creating a problem that can't be resolved - as it simply hasn't happened!
The problem with creating problems
When we start creating problems based on our fears it can be become a habit. Spending an excessive amount of time worrying about feared outcomes only fuels anxiety. Being more self-aware and knowing when worry is justified can spare us from unwarranted anxiety.
Fear of uncertainty
The fear of uncertainty can also play a role in excessive worrying. Striving to achieve absolute certainty by seeking reassurance from others before making decisions or re-reading routes before being confident to set out on a journey is often a fruitless task. Repeated reassurance seeking and over checking has been shown to reduce self-efficacy in decision making and to increase rather than reduce anxiety. A more helpful strategy would be to accept that not all events can be controlled and to learn to tolerate uncertainty.
Positive versus negative worry beliefs
How we perceive the activity of worrying can determine how much we worry about worrying. Our perceptions can be conflicting: On the one hand we might believe that worrying is a positive activity as it prepare us for situations, on the other we could believe worrying to be a sign that we are losing control of our mind. Such beliefs can maintain worry. Adopting a more flexible view of the role of worrying can help to reduce it significantly.
4 ways to reduce worry
- Write down your current worry and decide whether it is real or hypothetical. If your worry is about something that you need to resolve, write down possible solutions and decide when you can start initiating them. If you can act now, do so. If not, set aside a convenient time when you can put a practical resolution in place and commit to it. Until it can be dealt with, let it go. Worrying is not the same as taking action. If your worry is about a feared hypothetical outcome, let it go immediately. Worrying about an imagined future stops you from living in the present.
- Learn how to tolerate uncertainty by exposing yourself to it deliberately. Stop asking others for reassurance before making everyday decisions - learn to trust in your own judgement. Check something once if necessary. Re-reading directions to a meeting place will not make them any clearer. Checking an email for spelling errors excessively after sending it will not make any disappear. A couple of minutes lateness or the occasional typo can be forgiven. These may be uncomfortable scenarios, but your world will not end because of them.
- Be less rigid in your worry beliefs. The fear of losing control by worrying excessively is common, but is usually unfounded. What does losing control mean? Is it necessary to have to micro-manage and control every thought or worry? Believing that every worry we have needs to be completely eradicated only fuels further worry. Conversely, believing that the only strategy to deal with situations effectively is to worry about them can create a vicious cycle of unnecessary worrying.
- Postpone your worry. Set aside 10 minutes for worrying each day and stick to it. When you catch yourself worrying, make a mental note of it and resolve to let it go for now. Only think about it during the time you've designated. The benefit of this exercise is that by the time your 10 minutes comes around, the worry is usually forgotten as it was not important enough to pay any further attention to. Repeating this exercise daily is an effective way of reducing worry as it demonstrates its futility.