Do You Want to Worry Less?
Dr. Michael Sweetnam, PhD
Do you worry a lot? Some people think that worrying helps them to be prepared for the worst. Actually, worrying just increases your stress level and harms your physical and mental health. Research shows that worriers often overestimate how likely the worrisome event will be, and how catastrophic.
That is called catastrophic thinking.
Worriers often think about their worry for a brief period of time, become very anxious, and then try to avoid thinking about the worry. The next time the worry comes up, the worrier is just as anxious as last time.
Worrying vs. Planning
Worrying is different than planning. Planners sit down and think about how they would deal with the worrisome situation. Then they don’t get as anxious if the thought comes up again because they have a plan.
There is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy called worry exposure. It is designed to turn worrying into planning. That reduces the anxiety associated with worrying.
The worry exposure technique is fairly simple. First you put your worry into words. “What if I lose my job?” might be an example.
Next you ask yourself “How likely is that to happen?” Now remember — if you are a worrier, you are likely to overestimate how likely that is to happen. You might look for more accurate evidence of how likely it is to happen. (What kind of feedback do you get from supervisors? Do your coworkers seem to think you are doing a good job?, etc.) You may decide based on this step that your worry is very unlikely to come true.
Worry Exposure Part 2: Making a Plan
If you still find yourself worrying, the next step is to make a plan. “What would I do if that happened?” What would you do if you lost your job? If you tend to engage in catastrophic thinking, losing your job might seem like the end of the world. You might imagine yourself destitute and homeless. However, as you start to make a plan you might realize that you have people who would help you in hard times and that you have marketable skills. You would probably be very upset, but you would polish up your resume and start applying for jobs. The catastrophe turns into an unpleasant but manageable situation.
Worry exposure doesn’t usually eliminate anxiety completely, but it does reduce anxiety significantly if every time you start to worry you remind yourself of what your plan would be if it happened.
Another technique that also helps reduce the anxiety associated with worrying is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation helps you to calm your body and your mind when you get anxious. You might find my blog post “Why I meditate” helpful. You can also enter the search term “worry exposure” to learn more.
About Dr. Sweetnam
Michael Sweetnam, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist. His practice focuses on the treatment of children and families. The goal of treatment is to help family members to find solutions to problems and to create a family environment that enables family members to flourish emotionally, cognitively, and socially. He treats children and adults. For more information, view full bio.