A Clinical Psychologist's tips on how to stop worrying
It is not yet payday, you don't have enough funds, and an unexpected bill has come in. What would you do?
In a situation like this, many people spiral into worry about all the bad things that might happen.
Worry is a chain of thoughts (and images) about potentially adverse future events that causes feelings of anxiety and apprehension. Of course, we can all worry sometimes. However, when worry is excessive, out of proportion to a particular situation and detrimentally impacts a person's life, it is more likely to be classified as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. GAD is common and currently affects 1 in every 25 people in the UK (NICE, 2019).
Most of the time, we tend to focus on the content of our worries - what the worry is saying will happen in an imagined scary future.
But to understand why we keep getting stuck in unhelpful worry spirals, we need to look at our beliefs about worry.
Often people believe that worrying means something positive about them, that it helps them in some way, or is uncontrollable somehow. These beliefs help keep us trapped in worry. Let's look at some of these beliefs in turn:
Belief 1 - Being a worrier means I am a good/better person
What does being a worrier mean about you? But, first, consider whether any of these resonate:
Worrying means I am:
- A thoughtful person
- A caring person
- A good partner/parent/friend
If you believe that worrying means something positive about you, it will be harder to reduce the worry habit because it is tied to your self-esteem and the view you hold of yourself.
For example, if you believe that worrying means you are a good parent, then not worrying might mean (to you) that you are a terrible parent.
Worrying is something that your mind does; it does not mean anything about you as a person.
Challenge the idea that worrying means something positive about you.
If you had a magic wand and could magic away worry for the rest of your life, would you suddenly become a bad partner/friend or parent? Would it mean that you would somehow lose your ability to be thoughtful or caring? Of course not - how much you engage in the act of worry doesn't have any bearing on what sort of friend/parent/person you are.
Belief 2 - Worrying helps me feel more in control
Does engaging in worry make a difference to how in control you feel? You may feel that the act of worrying:
- Helps me solve problems
- Helps me feel I can cope
- Helps me feel prepared
- Means that I don't miss things
- Helps me gain certainty
Worrying doesn't help you control your life - doing something about the situation does
Your mind may have convinced you that worrying helps you feel more in control or helps you solve problems, but consider what your excessive worrying is costing you. It is probably taking up a lot of your time and energy and is almost certainly creating anxiety for you.
It is likely pulling you out of the here and now and impacting on the quality of your life. Instead of wasting time and energy worrying about what might or might not happen, re-focus on what you can control in a given situation - where you focus your attention and the actions you take next.
Belief 3 - Worrying is uncontrollable
A common negative belief about worry is that worry cannot be controlled. This is commonly referred to as a Type 2 worry, or worry about worry (Wells, 1997). Worrying about worry has been shown to exacerbate and maintain worry and people who hold these beliefs are more likely to experience GAD (Penney et al, 2012).
Worrying is a habit, and like any other habit, can be changed through active conscious effort.
You can deal with these challenging beliefs about worry by developing the skill of defusion - or stepping back from beliefs/thoughts rather than buying into them. For example, "I can't control my worry, it will never stop" is a negative thought that your mind has produced. It is essentially language in your mind. You do not need to pay attention to it - acknowledge it has shown up, remind yourself it is not helpful to buy into it, and shift your attention to something more useful or meaningful.
To read more about the skill of defusion, see this article.
If you describe yourself as a worrier or experience symptoms of GAD, it may be helpful to reflect on what sorts of beliefs you have about your worry.
Our minds produce thousands of thoughts each day; worry is just one example of that cognitive activity.
If you see your thoughts as thoughts, worry as worry - unhelpful mind chatter that does not need to be engaged with, you will find yourself breaking free from the grips of worry, opening up the potential for a better quality of life.
National Institute of Clinical Excellence (2019). Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults: Management. Clinical guidelines (CG113).
Penney, A., Mazmanian, D., Rudanycz, C. (2013). Comparing positive and negative beliefs about worry in predicting generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. Vol 45(1), Jan 2013, 34-41.
Wells, A. (1997). Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders: A Practice Manual and Conceptual Guide. Chichester. John Wiley & Sons.