Understanding Worry

Worry is the term we use to describe being troubled and anxious about actual or potential problems. Although it is natural and normal to worry sometimes, worrying which becomes persistent and uncontrollable is not normal. This type of worry begins to impact our daily functioning, mood, health, and overall performance. Chronic worrying is also a major symptom of Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

Trying not to worry often makes worrying worse. If I said, “Don’t think about a white polar bear?” what are you thinking about? A while polar bear! The more we try to avoid worry, the louder worry can become, demanding our attention, and occupying our mind. We can sometimes try to distract ourselves, and while that may help for short periods of time, worry will find its way back as soon as we stop doing. I often describe worry as being lost in a forest, going around in circles, and saying, “I think I’m lost… what if I’m lost?”. There is no sense of direction and great expense of energy.

Learning to deal with worry may well start with understanding why we are worrying, rather than focusing on the content of the worry. Sometimes we may have positive beliefs about worry which both exacerbate and maintain our worrying behaviour. Beliefs such as “worrying helps me be prepared for the worst”, “worrying helps me problem solve”, “when I worry, I feel in control”, and “I worry because I am a responsible person” are likely to fuel worry. If we think the problem is the solution, we will continue to have a problem.

On the other hand, we may have unhelpful thoughts about worry which can also serve to keep it going. These may include believing that worry is harmful, has negative consequences and will affect us adversely. Although there may be some grain of truth in this, it’s likely that the beliefs themselves will negatively impact us rather than the worrying behaviour.

Once we have understood why we are worrying, we can then work on ways to reduce our worrying behaviour. The following are some strategies you can try:

1. Keep a worry pad- during the day when a particular worry creeps in, write it down rather than keeping it on your mind. You’ll need this for the next strategy.

2. Worry Time- dedicate a particular time of the day, preferably during the day and not around bedtime, during which you can sit and worry about everything on your worry pad. Spend at least 15-20 minutes. Once the time is up, resume writing down worries on your worry pad until your next worry session.

3. Challenge your thinking- not everything you think is true, so do not believe everything you think. Majority of our worries and worst-case scenarios are unlikely to happen and are unrealistic. We can challenge our thinking with the following questions:
i. What proof do I have that this thought is true?
ii. What proof do I have that this thought is NOT true?
iii. Out of 100 people, how many people will agree with this thought?
iv. What would I say to a loved one or dear friend?
v. How will I think about these 5 years?

4. If you have a problem, try problem solving rather than worry. Problem solving is a systemic approach which involves generating a solution/s and giving them a try. If your problem is sorted, great. Otherwise, try the next solution and keep going until your problem is solved.

5. Worry Stream – Some worries are hard to let go of because they are real, but we are not able to do anything about them. With these worries, trying to let them go may be helpful. One way is to imagine an endless stream of water with leaves floating on the surface. Place these worries on the leaves and let them flow away. Repeat this when the worry comes back.

The aim is not to be worry-free rather to worry less. Less time spent on worrying is more time in the present, which is what matters.


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