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Ten Steps to Freeing Yourself From Your Worry

Turn worry on its head.

Cultura Motion/Shutterstock
Source: Cultura Motion/Shutterstock

Are you dwelling on negative thoughts about the future and predicting that dire or terrible things will happen? Do you lose sleep because of your worry and find yourself feeling distracted, nauseated, exhausted, or tense? Worry is one of the most common psychological problems we face, but some people find themselves worried about something on a daily basis. If that is the case with you, then you might be suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

What can you do? You don’t have to be a passive victim of intrusive and annoying worries. Organize your response by taking 10 simple steps to address worried thoughts. I am not going to tell you to think positively or ignore your worry, or to believe in yourself or to hope for the best. No, let’s just ask some questions about your worry; let’s interrogate it. If you are like a lot of worriers, you may find that worry hijacks your mind; you chase after thoughts and feelings that seem to control you, but you don’t have any tools to deal with them. Let’s find those tools now.

1. What are you predicting will happen?

What, exactly, are you predicting will happen? Are you predicting that you are going to get fired, get a fatal diagnosis, lose your relationship? This is called fortune-telling. Write down exactly what you predict will happen. Now, how likely do you think it is that this will occur, from 0-100 percent?

2. What is the worst, best, and most likely outcome?

Consider a full range of possible outcomes. For example, you might predict that your partner will leave you—that might be the worst outcome that you can imagine. But consider what might be the most likely outcome. Perhaps you will have difficulty together for a while but still continue in the relationship. Maybe the best outcome is that you will not have any difficulties after all.

3. What is the evidence for and against your prediction?

Your negative predictions may be based on limited or biased information. For example, your prediction that your partner will leave may be based on one recent argument. Or perhaps you are predicting the future based on your general anxiety—“I feel anxious, therefore something bad will happen.” Now, what is the evidence against your prediction? You might consider some of the positive things in your relationship, your past history, and what the two of you enjoy together. Weigh the evidence. Is it a 50-50, 60-40, 30-70 chance?

4. How many times have you been wrong in the past?

If you are a worrier, you may have made a lot of predictions that never came true. Maybe you keep predicting the worst, and then feel relieved when the sky hasn’t fallen. Is this a habit of thinking, or is it realistic? If it’s a habit, is it one that you need to change?

5. What are the costs and benefits of worry for you?

What do you hope to get out of your worry? How will repeatedly focusing on the negative help you? You might think that the benefits are that you won’t be surprised, that you will be prepared, or that you will get out before it’s too late. OK. How about the costs? Is your worry making you anxious, depressed, irritable? Does it make it hard for you to concentrate, impair your memory, lead you to procrastinate, or interfere with your sleep? How would you weigh the costs and benefits? 50-50? Or do the costs outweigh the benefits?

6. Is there any real evidence that worry has helped you?

Look back at all the worry that you have engaged in and ask: What has it gotten me? You might think that it motivated you to work hard—but can’t you work hard without worry? Can’t you be prudent and prepared without the added burden of persistent worry? Is worry really helping you get things done—or is taking action, confronting problems directly, and getting your work done more helpful?

7. How could you handle a bad outcome if it did occur?

For example, if you lost your job, would you be able to cope and find another job? If your relationship ended, would your world fall apart, or would you be able to cope and move on? Maybe you are more resilient than you give yourself credit for. Do you underestimate your ability to solve real problems?

8. What difficulties have you coped with in the past?

Many worriers believe that they can’t solve real problems if they occur. But haven’t you solved real problems in the past, overcome obstacles, and gone through difficulty? Worriers are often resilient, and they can solve real problems—except they generate more problems in their head than they can solve. Think of past difficulties, disappointments, and losses, and ask yourself if you were able to cope with them eventually.

9. How will you feel about this in the future?

When a fresh worry pops into your head, you may think that there is a sense of urgency for the answer or solution. It may feel like an emergency. But how do you think you will feel about this in a week, a month, a year, or in 10 years? It may be that the things you worried about last month don’t even occur to you now. If that is so, maybe things will resolve themselves on their own—without worry.

10. What advice would you give a friend?

You are probably rational, calm, and reasonable when you give advice to someone else. So, what advice would you give a friend with your worries? Try to think of yourself as the compassionate friend that you are to other people—but direct that good advice and compassion toward yourself.

Your worry is not going to go away. It won’t evaporate; it will keep popping up in your head. You may have been a worrier for years. But now you can use some tools to address your worry, put things in perspective, view things more rationally, and answer your worries. It will take time. It’s like being out of shape for years and starting a new training program. It’s cumulative; give yourself some time.​

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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