People who worry often believe their worrying helps them avoid the things they worry about. Worrying can feel as though it is helpful in preparation, problem solving, or securing a level of certainty or predictability. The reality is that worry can be helpful sometimes, but when worry becomes difficult to control and results in persistent anxiety, it is no longer helpful. Determining whether your worry is productive or unproductive can help you decide whether to use the worry to your benefit, or to let it go.
There are several ways of determining that your worry is productive:
There is a solution to your problem: Worrying can aid problem solving by helping you focus on figuring something out. For instance, if you know a road will be closed tomorrow and you have an important meeting to get to, worrying can be helpful in prompting you to find an alternate route, and leave a little earlier to ensure you’re not late. That’s a solution. Unproductive worry has no solution. It is just going over the problem again and again, increasing tension and anxiety. For instance, fretting about making it to the meeting on-time without any plan of doing so, or figuring out the plan but continuing to worry, is unproductive.
The worry is limited to one situation: Effective planning and preparation can really only be done by focusing on one thing at a time. If you find your mind jumping from situation to situation, it is unlikely that any effective solution will come from this. In fact, you’ll probably just end up feeling overwhelmed. Similar to this is the tendency to get caught up in a chain reaction of events: “If this goes wrong, then this will go wrong, then that will go wrong…” Again, what is lacking is focus on one event.
Worrying lasts less than 10 minutes: If you have been focusing on something for more than 10 minutes, planning is not happening. Instead you’re probably just ruminating or obsessing. Limiting your worry to 10 minutes can be helpful in increasing the pressure to come up with a solution. Sometimes prolonged worrying is the result of not being able to find a perfect solution. The 10 minute time limit can also help you be more willing to accept an imperfect solution. When you think about it, an okay solution is better than no solution at all.
You acknowledge there are factors outside of your control: If your worrying is focused on things over which you have no control, there is no planning happening. In fact, you could worry about the same thing constantly for years without being any more prepared, or any closer to a solution. Productive worry involves taking into account that you may have influence over certain situations, but not control. Focus on ways you can influence, and give up the fantasy of control.
Anxiety does not dictate your worry: Some people feel worrying has achieved its purpose once their anxiety dissipates. Unfortunately, usually the more you worry, the more anxiety your feel. Additionally, there are some things that will always elicit some level of anxiety within us. Anxiety presents itself because we care about something. The things we care most about are the biggest triggers of anxiety. Sometimes you may worry about something, problem solve it, identify a plan, but still feel some unease about the situation. This is okay, and doesn’t necessarily mean you need to worry about it more. What it means is there is something important about this situation. Doing what matters sometimes stirs up unpleasant feelings.
Once you’ve determined whether your worry is unproductive worry or productive worry, you can either use it to prepare, or let it go. This technique is part of a cognitive behavioral therapy protocol for generalized anxiety that has been shown to be effective in significantly reducing anxiety in 70-80% of patients, as compared to the 30% of patients who receive traditional talk therapy (Durham, 1995). Click here for more about cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety.
Durham, R.C. (1995). Comparing treatments for generalized anxiety disorder: Reply. British Journal of Psychiatry, 166, 266-267.
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