Managing your worries

For some people, worry is a curse that severely impacts on their well-being. For others, worry can be very beneficial, as it acts as a trigger to help them solve problems.  This is the difference between what psychologists call ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ worry. In this blog, we will talk about when and how worry can be productive, and some ways to manage unproductive worry.

What is worry?

Worry is a subjective experience, involving mental preoccupation with the undesirable implications of a potentially negative event in the future, and the likelihood of this event occurring. We all worry from time to time, however, worry can also be a symptom of anxiety disorders, such generalised anxiety disorder, and social anxiety.  

Is worry helpful or unhelpful?

You may be worried about a number of things. For example, perhaps you are worried about a presentation you have to give at work next week, and whether you will do a good enough job. Or perhaps you are on a flight and worried that the plane might crash. So how do we tell when it is unhelpful to worry?

Many of the things that we worry about are outside our reasonable control. For example, once you are on a plane, worrying that it might crash will not achieve much, except to make the flight rather stressful. This worry could be considered unproductive. However, sometimes you might worry about things that you can do something about, like giving a presentation at work. In this case, worry might motivate you to prepare for the presentation, which could be considered productive!

Sometimes you might have control over part of the thing we are worried about, but not all. Worry can be tricky like that. For example, while you do have control over preparing for your presentation at work, you may not have control about what your boss thinks of you, or how many people might be there. It might then be important to work out which parts of the situation you can do something about, and which parts are out of your control.

Once you have worked out whether you are worrying about something that you can control, you can look at turning this worry into something useful, through problem-solving.

How to be more productive

Let’s come back to the presentation at work. In this instance, worry might motivate you to prepare more, which would be useful.  However, what if you find yourself procrastinating instead, to avoid the thing you are worried about? This won’t be very helpful! You can use problem-solving to help address the thing you are worried about more effectively. 

Here are some suggestions on how to do this:

1.  Identify what the problem is

2.  Look at all the possible ways to address the problem. Are any of them going to be more effective (e.g. making slides for the presentation) than others (e.g. avoiding your presentation by going to the movies)

3.  Once you have identified the way forward, break the solution down into smaller, actionable tasks

4.  Make a plan for how long each step might take. Be realistic; research shows that people tend to underestimate how long things take to do!

5.  Focus your energies on doing the next step in the sequence; rather than worrying about the bigger picture

6.  Get started sooner rather than later. Don’t worry about getting things perfect, starting is more important. See the blog on Perfectionism in August for more tips! The trick is to use the worry to motivate you to do something productive to address the thing you are worrying about. Remember, that avoiding whatever it is that you are worried about is just likely to keep the worry going and make the situation worse!

7.  Reward yourself for staying on task, and take breaks at regular intervals. That way you will have more energy to complete the task and will be less likely to procrastinate.

What to do about unproductive worry?

If you find yourself worrying about something you cannot control, then the worry is unlikely to be helpful. These are worries that it is better to let go of. Everyone is different, and what works for one person might be different to the next person. Here are some strategies to try:

• Rather than letting worry take over every moment of your day, write down all the worries that pop into your head throughout the day. Once they are on the list, let them go. Then, at a set time each day, take out the list, and worry about all the things on the list for a set period of time, say 20 minutes. Sound strange, or even amusing? Give it a go! You might find that the things on the list no longer bother you, or that it is hard to worry ‘on-demand’.  If there are things on the list that you can do something about, this is a great time to try out some of the steps above! Over time,  your mind will be less filled with the worries, and you will feel more in charge.

• Practising mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or physical activity can help to focus your mind in the present moment, rather than focusing on the uncertainties in the future.

• Engaging in other activities that fill your mind can help to distract from the worries, once you have done what you can. What do you like to do? Try to identify a variety of activities that you find either enjoyable or give you a sense of meaning or achievement.

Are worries still bothering you? Sometimes worries can be stubborn and we need a little extra help. A psychologist can work with you to create a plan to better manage your worries.

Written by Dr Jemma Todd, Clinical Psychologist. 

More information

If you would like to learn more about managing your worries or book an appointment with one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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