TEN STEPS TO FREEING YOURSELF FROM YOUR WORRY
Robert L. Leahy
Turning worry on its head
Are you dwelling on negative thoughts about the future—predicting that dire or terrible things will happen? Do you lose sleep because of your worry, find yourself distracted, feel nauseated, exhausted, and tense? Worry is one of the most common psychological problems that many of us face, but some people find themselves worried about something on a daily basis. If that is the case, then you might be suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
What can you do?
You don’t have to be a passive victim of your intrusive and annoying worries. Let’s organize your response to worry by taking ten simple steps to address your worried thoughts. We are not going to try to think positively or ignore your worry. I am not telling you to believe in yourself or to think positively or to hope for the best. No, let’s ask some questions about your worry—let’s interrogate your worry. If you are like a lot of worriers you may find that your worry hijacks your mind, you find yourself chasing after thoughts and feelings that seem to control you, and you don’t have any tools to deal with your worry. Let’s find those tools now—and start using them.
1. What are you predicting will happen?
Are you predicting that you are going to get fired, get a deadly diagnosis, lose your relationship? Exactly what are you predicting? This is called fortune-telling—so write down exactly what you predict will happen. How likely do you think this will be 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—and that might be the worst outcome that you can imagine. But consider what might be the most likely outcome. Perhaps you will have difficulty for a while and still continue in the relationship. Maybe the best outcome is that you will never have any difficulties. That might be unrealistic, too.
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 a recent argument. Or perhaps you are predicting the future based on your anxiety-“I feel anxious, therefore something bad will happen”. 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 50-50, 60-40, 40-60?
4. How many times have you been wrong in the past?
If you are a worrier you may have been making predictions that never come true. You just keep predicting the worst and then feel relieved that the sky hasn’t fallen. Is this a habit of thinking or is it realistic? You decide. 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, you will be prepared, or 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 on things, 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 evidence that worry has really helped you?
Look back at all the worry that you have engaged in and what has it gotten you? You might think that it motivated you to work hard—but can’t you work hard without worry? Can’t you be prudent, planful 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 in the past have you coped with?
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 your worry pops into your head you think that there is a sense of urgency for the answer and the solution. It’s as if an emergency has occurred. But how do you think you will feel about this in a week, a month, a year or ten years? It may be that things you worried about last month don’t even occur to you now. If that is so, maybe things resolve themselves on their own—without worry.
10. What advice would you give a friend?
You are probably more rational, calm and reasonable in giving advice to someone else. 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 in your head. You may have been a worrier for years. But now you can use some tools to address the worry, put things in perspective, try to view things more rationally, and use these tools to answer your worries. It will take time. It’s like being out of shape for years and now starting a new training program. It’s cumulative. Give yourself time.