You may have heard the expressions “Worry about that later,” “Enjoy yourself and try not to worry,” and “Don’t be a worry wart.” The idea is to put off the worry, to try not to worry at all and definitely not to be consumed by the worry. Indeed, we have been told that worry can be bad for our physical health, with reports linking it to hypertension, ulcers and cardiac issues. In addition, we have been taught that too much worry is associated with anxiety, depression and a host of other mental disorders.
Clearly, worry seems to be something to be avoided, and yet most of us have found that trying to delay thinking about a worry or forgetting about it all together is very hard to do. In fact, as we try to stop worrying, we may trigger new worries about not being able to stop the worry, leading to a vicious cycle of feeling overwhelmed by worry.
A better approach than avoiding worry is to openly acknowledge the worry. Scheduling time for “planned worry” or “prescribed worry,” time set aside for worrying and organizing a plan to address the worry, is a technique that can actually lead to less intense and frequent worry. Prescribed worry time can be good for your overall health and can help you proactively address your worries.
Worry itself is not a bad thing. A worry calls our attention to something that could be a potential problem or could be dangerous. Worry becomes problematic if we worry excessively, can’t enjoy ourselves due to our worry or fail to be proactive in addressing our worry.
For example, worrying about a cough we have had for a while isn’t problematic unless we worry about it all the time, can’t relax due to the worry or fail to do anything productive to address the worry, such as calling the doctor. In fact, this worry, if addressed appropriately, could allow us to be in better health and less concerned about our cough. By addressing the worry, we may decrease free floating anxiety that may be associated with the worry — “Do I have a serious disease?” “Why am I ignoring my cough?” “Why is it so hard for me to take care of myself?” — and have more energy to deal with our day and enjoy ourselves.
Often times, we push worries aside during our day due to our busy schedule and our desire not to deal with them. At the end of the day, when we are depleted of our emotional resources, it is hard to address a worry. We my feel there is urgency to address it because we tried to ignore it all day and that compounds the stress we feel. Just as putting off worry does not ease the worry, purposefully telling ourselves not to think about a worry is equally unattainable.
Telling ourselves to “stop” thinking about our cough consumes a great deal of mental energy and makes it harder to focus on what is happening in our present world. Trying to stop ourselves from thinking about a worry may actually lead us to think about it more or worry about why we can’t stop thinking about it. Pushing our worries aside day after day is not a useful strategy to deal with our worries.
On the other hand, prescribed worry or planned worrying can be a very effective tool. This technique is a stimulus control procedure where people are asked to limit their worry to a specific time each day. Researchers in The Netherlands found that subjects with adjustment disorders and anxiety reported a decrease in overall worry when they engaged in a planned worrying procedure for at least 30 minutes a day. Likewise, researchers at Penn State University have found that a multistep stimulus control procedure for worry can be very effective in reducing the overall frequency and severity of worry reported by people.
Planned worrying, often used in cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) of anxiety, has the following general steps:
» Step 1: Become aware of worry that you experience daily. Instead of trying to push it away, make a mental note what the worry is.
» Step 2: Set aside 30 minutes a day to worry. During this time you write a list of your worries in a “worry journal.” Choose a consistent time of day to engage in the planned worrying when you will not be overly tired (i.e. do not enrage in this activity prior to bed), hungry or have many distractions around. When considering the location of your planned worry, avoid using your bedroom (you don't want the worry to be associated with the room you sleep in) and consider a place with as few distractions as possible. Make sure to put away the worry journal, ideally out of sight, once your 30 minutes of planned worrying is over.
» Step 3: Address each worry by identifying concrete, specific and manageable component goals. For example, if your worry is “How can I save money this year?” one goal would be “avoid buying morning coffee three out of five days this week.” For more free-floating anxiety such as, “I am worried about my career,” try to articulate specific concerns such as, “I am worried that I have not gotten a promotion in over three years.” Once you delineate specific worries, you can develop an action plan to address them. For example, you could develop the goal, “Organize a meeting with my boss to discuss my progress over the past couple of years and areas I can improve in.”
» Step 4: Follow up each day during your planned worry time to see if you are progressing toward addressing some component goals you identified as central to attacking your worry. If a worry is resolved, you can cross it out in your journal.
» Step 5: If you find yourself worrying at other times of the day, be aware of the worry and remind yourself you will have your planned worry time to address it. Be sure to limit your worry, as much as possible, to the planned worry time each day.
» Step 6: Reinforce yourself for engaging in the planned worry. Plan to do something you enjoy after the planned worry time to reinforce yourself and make it more likely you will engage in the activity.
Remember, while at first it might feel anxiety-provoking to have a specified worry time, in the long run you will find that you can reduce the overall amount of time you worry using the planned worry technique. Now, instead of trying to push that worry off until another day or negate it entirely, go schedule some time to worry.