Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Tackling Chronic Worry

When I was in graduate school, my partner and I had the same argument before every exam or assignment. “Why do you stress out about these things so much?” he’d ask, as I paced grooves into our carpet, miserably attempting to memorize even unimportant details, in case I had finally encountered the one occasion upon which these things would actually matter. “You always worry, and it always ends up being just fine.” I’d look at him in disbelief, say, “Yeah, but this time it’s DIFFERENT,” and return to enthusiastically highlighting the entire textbook.

I’m a worrier. Before I started working on it, I entertained endless “what if” scenarios, all of which ended in catastrophe. No amount of reassurance stuck. I either treated everything like an emergency or put it off until the last possible moment to avoid the discomfort of thinking about it. I often over-prepared, knowing that if I didn’t it would be BAD. I wanted to prevent the bad thing from happening, and if I failed to do so, it would mean something awful about me.

If you identify with anything I’ve just described, you may be a worrier too.
Before feeling about yourself, remember that worry is seductive for good reasons. Without being aware of it, many of us use it to maintain the illusion of control over an unpredictable world. We may think it helps us motivate ourselves, solve problems, prevent bad things from happening — or even avoid difficult emotions because we are too busy thinking to let ourselves feel. However, in the long run, worry often hurts us more than it benefits us. It eats away at our confidence and contributes to behaviors like procrastination or constant reassurance seeking. It can affect our relationships and may even cause depression.

So, now that we know all of this, what can we do about our worry? Here are a few strategies to try:

  • Is there any part of your worry you can turn into a to-do list item to be worked on now? Focus on those and let go of unproductive predictions about the future.
  • Remind yourself that uncertainty is part of what it means to be human. It is neither good nor bad but part of the human experience.
  • Take a step back and recognize your thoughts for what they are – thoughts, not facts. Try this by labeling each of your worries as thoughts (e.g., “I’m simply having the thought that I’m going to fail my test”). Or repeat your worries aloud until they lose meaning or start to bore you (bonus points for doing this in a silly voice!).
  • Write down your worries and related predictions, then return to these in a week and see what the actual outcomes were. You may notice that the vast majority of feared outcomes do not actually come to pass.
  • Plan 15 minutes of your day as designated “worry time.” Set aside all worries that happen outside that time and focus on them during worry time. When worry time finally rolls around, many of your worries may seem pointless.
  • Use the temptation to put off tasks that worry you as a cue to tackle them head-on. You’ll often find that the discomfort wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be, and your worry was short-lived because you didn’t prolong it through avoidance.
  • Identify activities that take you out of your head and into your body and your senses. Activities like exercise, rock climbing, hiking, listening to music, dancing, enjoying a delicious meal. Devote some time each day to those activities.
  • Ask yourself how you will feel about this worry in a month, year, or five years. What will you be doing in a few hours, tomorrow, or the next day? What good things could happen during this time?

Finally, if your worrying is getting in your way or causing distress, consider talking to someone about it. Therapists can help you identify what your worry is actually about and explore and implement strategies by which to manage it.

Take good care of yourselves, fellow worriers!

Susie Musch, Ph.D.