A New Way to Reduce Worrying

A study shows how you can train your mind to disengage from worries.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

tommaso79/Shutterstock
Source: tommaso79/Shutterstock

There’s an endless list of topics to worry about nowadays. Health, the coronavirus pandemic, finances, children, elderly relatives, work, and the future are the most common topics I hear about from my clients. And they would all like to be able to stop their minds from going through the repetitive loop that leads to catastrophizing and increasing anxiety and leaves them exhausted and depressed. One of the biggest myths about worry is that it can be productive. In reality, worrying impedes problem-solving and rarely generates anything positive.

One of the most effective yet deceptively simple methods to reduce worry is stimulus control, which is an integral part of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) for chronic worry. Stimulus control involves delaying worry until a predetermined time of the day. For example, choose 4-4:30 p.m. as your “worry time,” then each time a worry shows up in your mind, make a note so you’ll remember it at four o’clock. That way you can train your attention: Each time you write down a worry topic to be tackled later, you then refocus your mind on something you are doing in the present moment.

While this technique can be very helpful, I find that some of my clients find it hard to disengage from worry thoughts and postpone worrying. “Even after I write down a worry for later, I can’t stop thinking about it. I try distracting myself, but that only works for a short time,” is a concern I often hear. So what would happen if we could have a constructive replacement activity to focus on? Something that will keep your attention, but also has other known psychological benefits?

A study in Behavior Therapy by Katherine McDermott and Jesse Cougle from Florida State University examined a new approach for helping worriers worry less. They recruited 50 participants who scored high on a measure of the tendency to worry frequently. Half of them participated in a two-week online program aimed at teaching them how to disengage from worry, and the other half received no training. After completing the training, the first half reported less overall worry and less depressive symptoms—which is remarkable, given the short duration of the study.

The program not only gives participants something to focus on instead of their worries but also helps train their minds to become flexible in shifting attention. It engages thinking and writing about positive, prosocial, and goal-oriented topics, all of which are well-known antidotes to anxiety and depression.

Although this study’s intervention was delivered by computer, its content can be easily transported to your life and living room. You can use Word or a pen and paper. The worry disengagement training consists of six 30-minute “sessions” spread over a two-week period. Make a schedule for yourself and do the training, for instance on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then repeat for another week. You can use the following guidelines; if you’d like to keep it simple, just do all the intervals for four minutes.

When you are instructed to do “Worry writing” below, please choose a worry topic that was on your mind that day. Make sure that the topic is future-oriented and anxiety-provoking. Describe in detail your thinking process, including your fears about not being able to control or stop the worrying. 

Monday Session:

4 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Describe an activity that makes you fulfilled

3 minutes: Worry writing

3 minutes: Identify activities you can do to take care of yourself

2 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Write about some new activities you’ve always wanted to try

2  minutes: Worry writing

5 minutes: Make a plan for incorporating 1-3 meaningful activities into your next week.

Wednesday Session:

4 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Describe a long-term goal (including why you’re passionate about it)

3 minutes: Worry writing

3 minutes: Identify a personal strength and how it can help with the identified goal

2 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Write about a time you put effort into an activity (regardless of the outcome)

2  minutes: Worry writing

5 minutes: Describe a goal related to the kind of person you want to be (including a quality you’d like to work on)

Friday Session:

4 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Describe a person in your life to whom you are grateful

3 minutes: Worry writing

3 minutes: Describe a time when you felt loved or appreciated

2 minutes: Worry writing

4 minutes: Write about something you have done or could do to help others

2  minutes: Worry writing

5 minutes: Outline the opportunities you’ll have to help others in the next month

Good luck!