Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

Don't Worry, Mom

What If?

Stopping the worry train in its tracks

Posted Jun 24, 2013

I come from a long line of worriers and was a worrier since childhood.  As a young child I worried about my shoelaces coming untied since I couldn’t tie them myself.  I begged my mother to tie and re-tie my shoelaces before I went to school each day so afraid that I would have to spend the entire day unable to play or run because my shoelaces had come untied.  As a young adult, I worried about being prepared for every possible outcome and tried to anticipate what could go wrong in advance.  When I went on a trip, I made lists of every item that I needed to pack, preparing for any situation that could occur, and checked and rechecked my list and my suitcase.  I can remember one time when I was particularly stressed before leaving for a trip and was checking and rechecking my list.  My friend asked why I was so stressed and I said “What if we get there and I realize that I forgot something?”  He casually said “Then you will go buy it at a store.”  It had never crossed my mind that the solution was that simple and the absurdity of the years of stressing over trips hit me like a ton of bricks. 

Worriers think that worrying helps them to prepare for every possible outcome, but in reality, it interferes with problem solving.  Had I not been so stuck in my worry cycle, I would have obviously thought of the solution to traveling and forgetting something vital.  As a child, I would have realized that I simply could have asked an adult to retie my shoelaces and gone right back to playing.  The worries seem so absurd when you look at them from the outside because there were obvious solutions to these problems.  But worries get us so stuck in the “what if”s that we never move past them to think of what the real consequences are.  Our worries may seem specific “What if I lose my job?”  “What if I never fall in love?” “What if I am late for this appointment?”  but the consequences

that we’re really worried about stay vague because we never think past the “what if?”  If I lost my job, am I afraid that I would never get another job and I would end up homeless?  Or am I worried that I would be embarrassed about losing my job?  Most worriers don’t really think through the consequences of what would happen if the events that they worried about really were to occur.  Worriers say things like “It would be terrible,” “It would be awful,” and “I would be the worst thing that could happen,” but they never get down to the specifics of the feared consequences if their worries were to occur.  Instead, worriers end up on a worry train to nowhere, a vague and yet horrible place.

So how do we stop the worry train in its tracks?

1) Follow the “what if” to the consequences.  Ask yourself “If what I’m worried about happened, then what?  For example, if the worry is “What if this date doesn’t go well?  It would be horrible!”  Then what? “Then I’d end up alone.”  Then what?  “Then I’d be alone forever.  And die unhappy and unloved.”  When you take the worry to the final consequence, it seems unlikely.  Obviously some people never do find a romantic partner, and some portion of them probably are unhappy and unloved, but what are the odds that this would happen to you?  Most people who worry about this would realize that this is unlikely to occur.  They have friends, they could meet someone else who they are interested in romantically at some point in the future, or they have family members so odds are that they will not end up dying unhappy and unloved.  So really what the person is worried about is that it would be disappointing if this date didn’t go well.  That is a much less scary and horrible than the original worry.

2) Combine #1 with problem-solving.  So let’s say that the worry is that you will lose your job.  If you did lose your job, what could you do to solve the financial burden?  What resources could you rely on?  You could apply for other jobs.  You could use savings.  Perhaps you could sell your home and move in with extended family.  Worry interferes with problem-solving so it is important to sit down and objectively think about what options there are if your feared consequence did happen.  Many times this makes the worry seem less troublesome because you realize that you do have some resources to cope with the situation if the worst occurred.

3) Schedule a worry time.  Many worriers have trouble controlling their worries.  Once they start, they can’t stop.  Instead, schedule a time to worry and postpone worrying until that scheduled time.  Most worriers find that the original worry is no longer a concern at the time when their worry time comes around.  But, it is easier for worriers to remove the worry from their mind temporarily if they know that they have a set time to worry later. 

4) Engage in relaxing activities, such as breathing slowly, doing yoga, stretching, meditating, or even going for a walk.  This helps to reduce your baseline anxiety, the level of anxiety that you have on a daily basis, which helps to reduce your worriers.

5) Know that usually what you worry about doesn’t happen.  Most times when something terrible happens, it is something that a worrier hasn’t considered.  This leads most worriers to worry more because they think that if they had worried more, they would have identified this potential consequence.  However, if you recognize that you will never be able to plan for every potential consequence and that usually worrying does not help you to plan ahead for what does occur, you may be able to turn off your worries a little.  Embrace the idea that sometimes bad things happen, but when they do, you find ways to cope with them. 

Resources:

Worry Facts: http://www.abct.org/docs/Members/FactSheets/WORRY%200707.pdf

Information about when worry becomes a disorder: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad

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