Worry Time: A powerful tool in the fight against chronic worry

Everybody worries. For some, however, worry dominates their lives every hour of every day. Worry even invades their dreaming brain.

  • What if I lose my job?
  • What if my wife leaves me?
  • What if something is wrong with my child?
  • What if (enter political party of choice) loses in the November elections?
  • What if I never find someone to love?

People worry a lot for a number of reasons. Some believe that constant worry makes them more productive and less likely to forget to deal with an important life issue. Some worry constantly in order to beat themselves up for making a perceived mistake (perhaps for a kind of penance or to make sure it does not happen again). Some worry more ritualistically to ward off or to be prepared for danger. Some might worry out of an exaggerated sense of a culturally prescribed role (a nice Jewish mother should worry about her kids while they are away). Others worry because it actually reduces anxiety in the short-term to worry about something as a pseudo-intellectual process (“I’m too short, I’m too short, I’m really a shorty…”) rather than what would be more painful to ponder, the visual imagery of the feared consequence of the worry. You can more easily bear repeated thoughts that your child might die during a sleepover than to imagine the event in imagination-techno-color. What happens is that when the initial worry ventures into really scary territory, the tendency is to DO SOMETHING to decrease that anxiety (e.g. call for the third time to check on your child). This does not allow you to process the core-scary stuff.

Let’s assume you are someone who feels overwhelmed by worry and would like to worry less. What can you do?

Decide that worry does not deserve your attention twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Then, Set up a Worry Time regimen:

  • Agree on a reasonable amount of time that you will spend dealing with your worries each day (perhaps somewhere between twenty minutes and an hour).
  • Decide when you will do your Worry Time. Some like to get it out of the way first thing in the morning, some like to do it before bed as a way of going to sleep with a “clear head” (warning—while this will help some to sleep better, others might have a hard time sleeping if they worry before bed), and others pick a time in the middle of the day or after work. Try to find a time that works with your particular life circumstances. Whatever time you decide will be your Worry Time and you are to stubbornly refuse to engage with your worry at other times. When Worry rears its ugly head at other times (and it will) you are to refuse to play along. It can jabber on in the background, like a TV that was left on in the next room, but you are not to go into that room and watch what is playing. You CAN carry a little notebook and pen with you and when worry tries to suck you in, you can briefly jot the content of the worry in the notebook and file it away for your next Worry Time. Accept the fact that the worry will keep bouncing around in your head…DON’T PLAY ALONG. Pick your metaphor: Let the worries be leaves blowing in the wind, snowflakes wafting around your head, train cars speeding along, whatever helps you to not attach yourself to the worries at that time. Agree to be somewhat uncomfortable and uncertain and focus on whatever is your current task at hand (paying bills, making dinner, exercising…).
  •  Decide where you will do your Worry Time. I encourage you to find a place that is okay for you to associate with worry, such as a desk or in front of the computer. I recommend that your bed be a worry-free zone. Decide whichever place will be your worry spot, and you are to stubbornly refuse to engage with worry outside of that zone, unless you will be physically away from that zone during Worry Time.
  • When it’s Worry Time, sit down with paper and pen (or word processor) and worry. No distractions are allowed. No pleasant music, alcohol or drugs, TV, texting, or phone calls. No friends, children, or spouses are allowed to share your attention. It’s just you and your worry. Write your worries down in great detail as you are having them. Get it ALL down on paper. When you have nothing left to write, read it over and over (or record it and listen repeatedly) until it loosens it’s grip over you and feels less “hot”. Believe it or not, if you cut out all distractions you might get quite bored with your worry after awhile (wouldn’t that be an improvement!).
  • Also during your Worry Time, if your target worry is amenable to problem-solving spend time doing this. Someone once said “Anything worth worrying about is worth problem-solving”. So if your worry can be problem-solved, do it.

Here is the basic formula for effective problem solving:

  1. Define the problem concretely.
  2. Generate as many possible solutions in a set amount of time that you can (Do not judge or evaluate them until time is up).
  3. Evaluate the reasonable possibilities (divide a piece of paper into two columns and for each possible solution record the “pros” and “cons”).
  4. Select and implement the potential solution and combination of solutions (break into small steps, if needed).
  5. Evaluate the outcome.
  6. Repeat, if needed.

So, if you worry that you might flunk out of school, perhaps you’ll devise a new plan of study, time management, or academic schedule. If you worry about your child’s aggressive behavior, you might come up with a behavioral plan, find a local child psychologist, or plan to purchase and read parenting books. Sometimes, just placing the problem on paper and brainstorming a reasonable solution can be very helpful. Things tend to look less overwhelming when they are written down versus spinning around your brain.

  •  Worry, in general, also seems to improve for many when they create and carry out an effective stress or depression management plan. If stress or depression is a factor, take it seriously and deal with those problems in order to increase the likelihood of a successful worry management regimen. Remember, your task is to deal with chronic worries, which is different from depressive ruminations (“I’m a loser…there is no hope for me…”) Depression requires a different type of treatment than Worry Time.
  • Repeat Worry Time every day. If you are not benefiting after a couple of weeks (or if your condition worsens), seek a consultation with an anxiety specialist (check www.adaa.org for a list of anxiety specialists throughout the USA).

The book I recommend most often for dealing with chronic worry is called “The Worry Cure” by Robert Leahy. Don’t let the cheesy title fool you, it is an excellent book (though Bob, didn’t you learn in grad school not to promise “cures”?).

So, worry away out there—just make sure you worry at your regular time and place and in the most effective way! Don’t give worry your attention 24/7.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.