Life is full of uncertainty, and many people try to manage their fears with worry.
If you are a worrier, you are probably no stranger to thoughts like these.
- What if I get fired?
- What if I have a horrible disease?
- What if I lose all of my money?
- What if something terrible happens to my child?
- What if I fail at this?
- What if I am alone forever?
Worriers often get stuck in rumination, and once you start worrying, it is hard to get out of the cycle. The good news is that if you take a step back from your worries, it will better equip you to stop.
Identify the “Why” of Worry
You can learn to worry less and reduce anxiety. One helpful way is to look at the reasons why you worry instead of focusing on the content of your worries.
Here are common reasons why people worry:
- For preparation. Maybe people think worries can help them prepare for the future, especially for a bad outcome. They might believe they need to think through every possible feared scenario, so they won’t be caught off-guard.
- For problem-solving. Some people use worry to think through solutions to various potential problems. This process looks like this: If X happens, then I will do Y, but if A happens, I will do B.
- To gain control. People don’t like feeling out of control, especially in the face of uncertainty. Many of my therapy clients often report that their worrying feels like it gives them a sense of control over things.
- To be conscientious and responsible. Some people believe that their worry makes them a careful and reliable person. They also might think it motivates them to do things, and without worrying, they would turn into a total slacker.
- For superstitious reasons. Sometimes there is a superstitious quality to worry—people believe they need to worry about all bad outcomes so they don’t happen. This tendency is also referred to as magical thinkingthinking that your thoughts and worries can control outside events.
Challenge Your Beliefs About Worry
Let’s look at these beliefs again and see how you can re-evaluate them.
- For preparation. You can ask yourself if you are genuinely emotionally preparing yourself if something dreadful does happen. If you end up losing your job, will it really feel less awful if you spent hours and hours worrying about it in advance? Likewise, if a loved one dies, will you feel less sad about it if you are frequently worried about it in advance? You might be caught less off-guard if you know about the possibility of something bad happening, but repeatedly worrying about it in advance will not help you cope.
- For problem-solving. This reason is a little bit more complicated than the rest, as sometimes worrying can help you think through problems and possible solutions. To identify when this belief about worry has become problematic, ask yourself when you are worrying, “Is there anything productive I can do about this issue right now?” If so, do it! If not, ask yourself if there is a date in the future where you can revisit this worry and possibly do something productive about it then. If that is the case, write it down on a calendar to revisit. If there is nothing constructive you can do right now, tell yourself it is time to move on.
- To gain control. If this is why you worry, it is helpful to start working on accepting that you cannot control everything in your life and accept uncertainty. Uncertainty is a part of life and there is nothing you can do about that. You might ask yourself what you can do or are already doing to control aspects of your life.
- To be conscientious and responsible. If you worry that your life will fall apart if you don’t worry, know that it won’t. People with this belief about their worries tend to be diligent and are usually quite motivated. You can experiment and give yourself a “worry break” for a week or even a day. If you can reduce your worrying, notice if you did indeed neglect all of your responsibilities and lose all motivation. Chances are, you didn’t!
- For superstitious reasons. If this is a reason why you worry, take a moment and assess your magical thinking. Is there a link between your thoughts and whether or not events occur? Suppose you tend to be a superstitious person. You can challenge your superstitious beliefs by purposefully stepping on cracks or resisting the urge to knock on wood. It is also beneficial to work on accepting the fact that bad things will happen in the world, but they are not the result of whether or not you worried about them.
The Take-Home Message
The next time you find yourself worrying about something, take a step back from your thoughts and the content of your worries. Ask yourself, “Why am I worrying about this thing? What do I think my worries are doing for me?” Next, evaluate whether or not your worry is actually helping you. If there is nothing you are doing to change the situation right now, it’s time to move on!
Note: If you are interested in reading more about worry, I highly recommend the book, The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping Youby Robert L. Leahy.