How to Worry Effectively

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BY JESSICA INMAN-HISLOP

As COVID-19 continues, it can be hard not to slip into worrying about the implications this may have for us: for our employment, for our social lives, for our physical and mental health, and that of our loved ones. Worry is a normal part of human experience; it is an attempt by our brain to solve a perceived problem. Our brains are hard-wired to detect potential threats to our safety, and on top of this they are problem-solving machines; qualities that are extremely useful when we are faced with a clear problem, such as a tiger on the prowl, and need to make a quick decision about how to keep ourselves safe – fight or flight! But what if the problem is a hypothetical situation, that is, one that hasn’t happened yet? While it is completely normal to worry from time to time, if our worries start to consume us from morning to night, making it difficult to concentrate and complete everyday activities, this is when it is important to consider whether our worry is actually helping us or hindering us.

Problem-solving or Certainty-seeking?

Important questions to consider are: is the problem I’m trying to solve a current problem or a hypothetical problem? Am I trying to solve a problem, or am I trying to increase my certainty about something that I cannot control? If it is a current problem, ask yourself: is there something I can do about this problem now? If yes, do it! Pay the overdue gas bill, sanitise your hands after going to the shops, start the work project. If you’re not sure about how to approach the problem, spend some time defining it in factual, specific terms, thinking about what you would like to be different (what your goal is), and thinking through your options. Weigh the pros and cons of each option before choosing one and carrying it out, remembering that there is often no perfect solution! If it is a hypothetical problem, that is, if we are worrying about something in the future that may not even happen, although it may feel very uncomfortable to sit with that uncertainty, it is important to acknowledge and accept that there is more than likely nothing we can do about the problem, and that worrying about it is likely just making us feel worse. This is when we need to unhook from the worry – let the thoughts go. With consistent practice it will become easier to tolerate those uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty.

Unhooking from worry

To unhook from worry, which is by and large future-focused, we need to practice focusing our attention on the present. We can do this by paying attention to what is going on in just this moment, using our five senses, and we can do this no matter where we are or what we are doing. For example, when having a shower, focus on the sensations on your skin, the smell of the shampoo or soap, the shape of the bubbles, the sound of the water. When you notice your attention moving towards hypothetical worries, acknowledge your thoughts, and then gently bring your attention back to the present. Unhooking from worry takes consistent practice, and it involves an ongoing process of noticing that our attention has wandered and bringing it back. You may find it easier to start by practicing 10 minutes a day during a highly engaging task, such as during a walk in the park, or while watching an engrossing movie. There are also many apps that can be useful for guiding our practice as well.

Containing worry

If you struggle to dismiss your worries completely, it is important to experiment with putting boundaries around them so that they are not taking up all the space in your brain throughout the entire day. This is where the concept of Worry Time is extremely useful. First, pick a time in the day that you can dedicate all your energy to worrying. Next, pick a separate location in your house for completing Worry Time, such as sitting at your desk or facing a dull corner of your balcony (ideally not a location that is used for relaxing!). Then during the day, as worries pop into your head, write them down and “park” them for later. Each time you notice your thoughts drifting into worry, gently bring your attention back to the activity you’re engaging in, whether it’s completing a complicated task, or just making a cup of tea, and tell yourself you will worry about it later. When Worry Time comes around, take out your list of worries and spend 20-25 minutes worrying to your heart’s content. This can include just allowing your thoughts to run free, or looking at the likelihood of your worries actually coming true and whether you could realistically cope, or engaging in the structured problem-solving steps discussed above. The main goal of Worry Time is to postpone our worries to a time that is better suited to paying attention to and engage in problem-solving, so that we can get on with the rest of our day. When Worry Time rolls around, we may even find that some of the worries we had earlier in the day can be easily dismissed, and we can just scratch those straight off the list! If you find that you consistently struggle with the same hypothetical worry over and over, and it is starting to make you avoid certain situations, triggers, or people, it can be helpful to get some additional guidance from a psychologist.

Jessica is a clinical psychologist registrar with experience working in private practice, inpatient and outpatient mental health care, and university settings. She completed her clinical psychology training at the University of Technology Sydney, and has presented research at national conferences.


 

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