Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Worrying is thinking about problems that may happen in the future. It’s something everybody does. You can spot worrying by its “what if” pattern – “What if I get fired?”, “What if my HEALTH DETERIORATES?” and so on.
Some worry is very helpful and causes you to act appropriately.
For example, if worrying about a car accident causes you to be safe on the roads, then your worry is a good thing. Or if worrying about a presentation for work causes you to prepare carefully, then your worry has helped you reach your goals.
Worry can cause us to feel anxious. When we worry more than we should, we can get caught in a cycle of anxiety.
This article will help you understand the role worry plays in your anxiety.
Some worry is natural – even helpful – to motivate and energize us to take action. For example, being concerned about your health and wellbeing can push you to look after yourself, seek more information, check what your partner or family thinks, and try to consider all the alternatives.
When you worry too much
Worry becomes a problem when you worry too much, when you worry about things over which you have no control, or when worries become so frequent that they take over a large part of your day.
Worry can become a vicious cycle – the more you worry, the worse your anxiety becomes. The more anxious you feel, the more time you spend worrying. The more you worry, the more problems and difficulties you can imagine.
The Worry Cycle
More time spent worrying
Worrying that something 'bad' might happen
Imagining the feared situation in great detail
Feel more anxious and fearful
Often, worry is one step we take to try to address a problem in our lives. Worrying too much is 'problem-solving without actually solving the problem'. We visualise all sorts of possible problems. We think about lots of negative outcomes. But, we don’t take action to put any solutions in place.
As a result, the problem seems bigger. Worrying thoughts return, and we spend even more time 'problem-(not)-solving'.
Worrying about things over which you have no control is a waste of energy and can cause anxiety symptoms to worsen. Accepting rather than fighting such thoughts takes less energy, and frees up more resources for coping.
Practical vs. Hypothetical Worries
Practical worries can be about things over which you have some control, and that might really happen. Worries about things over which you have no control, or that may never happen, are hypothetical.
Practical worries are usually about problems you have right now. For example, “I've missed my bus to work and I’m going to be late for an important meeting.” In this situation, the problem is not hypothetical. It has happened, and acting on the worry is within your control.
Hypothetical worries usually involve “what if?” questions. For example, “What if I miss the bus to work and then lose my job?” These worries are around things that could possibly happen, but may never happen. The worry connects events that aren’t within your control.
It is usually best to let hypothetical worries go. Trying to figure out how you will handle a worry over which you have no control, or that may not ever happen in reality, is a waste of your time and energy.
Practical worries are worries we can try to do something about. Normally we need to take action to deal with these worries.
The worry tree in the section can help you decide how to manage your worries. You will get to build your own worry tree later in the module.
Managing Worries With The Worry Tree
The worry tree is a useful tool when we are trying to deal with our worries. It helps us to break down the problem to understand whether a worry is practical or hypothetical, and whether or not we can do something about it. Then, it helps us think about what we can do to deal with the worry, and how we are going to do it.
Take a look at how the worry tree can help break down a problem:
Breaking down worries using the worry tree
It can be hard to break down worries at first. Here are some more tips on how to use the worry tree.
1. Notice that you are worrying
If you find you are thinking the same negative thoughts about a problem, over and over, you are in a worry cycle. Try to notice these cycles.
2. What is the worry about?
Take some time to think what your worry is really about. What is the real problem. For example, if you are worried about a presentation at work, is your worry really that you might stumble over your words and feel stupid in front of your colleagues.
3. Can you do something about it?
If you can do something about the problem, what can you do? Try to think of as many possible solutions as you can before choosing the best one. If you can’t think of a solution right now, or if it is a hypothetical worry, let the worry go for now. Make sure your solution is not in fact a safety behavior!
4. When can you do something about it?
Can you do something about this worry right now? Or do you need to wait until later? For example, if you are worried you wrote down the time wrong for a doctor’s appointment, you can take action now by calling the doctor's office. If you are worried you made a mistake in a presentation for work you may need to wait until you can get to a computer to check.
5. Take action!
Decide how you will solve the problem and do it! If you can’t do something right now, when will you do it?
6. Let the worry go
Once you have taken action to solve the problem, let the worry go. We will look at this in more detail in the next section.
Did you solve the problem? Don’t worry if you didn’t fix everything immediately - some problems take a longer time to solve. If you didn’t solve it, are you a step closer to a solution? What did you learn from problem-solving?
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