10 worry management strategies
Worry is a cognitive process characterised by thinking about personal concerns in unproductive, repetitive ways, and experiencing difficulties terminating these chains of thoughts. Worry is future oriented and has various negative consequences: it interferes with emotional processing, the extinction of fear, and adaptive coping. Worry correlates significantly with anxiety and depression symptoms and can lead to ‘meta-worry’, or worry about worry itself. Here are 10 strategies for dealing with worry:
1. Normalise worry.
Evolution has selected humans who can plan for the future. However, we are also prone to worrying about the ‘what if’s’. If you observe a worry, congratulate yourself for noticing, label it as a normal part of the human experience, and refocus your thinking on something more enjoyable or helpful.
2. Label worry as unhelpful.
Believing that worry prevents bad things from happening is an illusory correlation – the worry makes us feel in control but the bad things probably wouldn’t have happened anyway. Worry is never helpful, it just causes us to become stressed, distracted, and afraid.
3. Tune into the real worry.
We often worry about mild-moderate level concerns to avoid really big concerns. Worrying about small things stops us worrying about big things (and makes us feel relieved) but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Try tuning into the big worry during ‘worry time’ (strategy 10).
4. Acknowledge that worry is addictive and reinforcing.
Counter-intuitively, worry activates the reward centres in our brain – it gives us the illusion of control and helps us to avoid big problems, which causes us to feel good (temporarily). We can get addicted to that feeling. Instead of worrying, try a different rewarding activity, such as cooking, gardening, or exercise.
5. Don’t use worry as a mood management strategy.
Because worry activates the reward centres of our brain and helps us to avoid our big concerns, we may begin to rely on it to boost our mood when we feel sad or scared. Try a different mood management strategy, such as connecting with a friend or doing something you are good at.
6. Let go.
Many worries have a low probability of eventuating and aren’t really worth thinking about. Practice letting go of your worries using visualisations. For example, imagine you are standing in a forest which has a blue stream with green leaves on it. Place your worry on a leaf and watch it float away until it is no longer a part of you.
7. Notice circadian patterns.
Worry is worse in the mid-afternoon and evening – our prefrontal cortex, which helps us to plan, problem solve, reason, and regulate emotions, is less active then. Therefore, nighttime and mid-afternoon are not good times for dealing with worries. Instead, write it down and come back to it in the morning. Try switching and savouring – label the worry and switch to something enjoyable.
8. Curiosity, kindness, non-attachment.
Worry activates the limbic system – the emotional part of our brain – and makes us vigilant for threat. Turn on your prefrontal cortex by being curious (turn outwards instead of inwards), kind (do something nice for someone else), and non-attached (focus on the process, not the outcome).
9. Realistic, flexible and useful thinking.
Ask yourself if the worry is realistic, flexible, and/or useful, which are the hallmarks of healthy thinking. Worries don’t usually pass this test.
10. Scheduled ‘worry’.
Pick a time each day (preferably in the morning) to go through your worries. Divide them into solvable versus unsolvable problems. Try to let go of the unsolvable problems (the ‘what if’s’). Prioritise and solve the solvable problems. If you notice you are worrying outside worry time, write it down and come back to it at worry time.
Remember, worry is normal but unhelpful. Tune into your worries, especially the big ones, and let them go or solve the problem.