Kicking the worry habit

Worried woman
Worry can weigh you down.

Are you a worrier? Are you prone to 'what if...?' thinking? Does not worrying make you feel unsafe and irresponsible? My column on kicking the worrying habit in last week's Southern Star is reproduced below.  


‘Worry, worry, worry, worry/Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone’.


Fans of the American musician Ray Lamontagne might recognise the above words. Later in this song, Trouble, Lamontagne sings: ‘Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend’.


It might sound like a contradiction. On the one hand, the words suggest the narrator is weighed down by his worries. He cannot control them, they will not ‘leave my mind alone’. On the other hand, worry is his ‘only friend’.


In fact, the words reveal a real insight into the nature of chronic worrying. Generalised anxiety disorder, to use the official term, is characterised by excessive worry that is very difficult to control. Burdensome as this is, worriers also tend to have positive beliefs about worry. Not worrying is seen as irresponsible and unsafe, while worry is seen as a form of problem-solving.



But is it? ‘Worry is a terrible strategy’, writes New York Times columnist Carl Richards, ‘but for a long time it was the only one I knew’. Richards would bring his worries to his wife, a long list of “What if?” scenarios, but she would invariably be ‘annoyingly calm’. Exasperated, he would respond, ‘Aren’t you worried?!’ She would simply say, ‘I could be worried if you want me to, but I don’t see how it would help’. Over time, Richards saw his wife was right; it might feel like worrying helps, but it changes nothing.


Most worry is just wasted time. One revealing psychological study found 85 per cent of people’s worries didn’t come true. And when worries were realised, the vast majority – 79 per cent, according to the same study – said they handled the situation better than they thought they would.


Let’s do the maths. 85 of every 100 worries didn’t come true. Of the 15 that did, people dealt with the situation better than they thought they would in 12 cases (80 per cent). In other words, only three of every 100 worries both came true and were as bad as feared!


The stats are a reminder to keep a sense of perspective and to try to be realistic rather than habitually catastrophising or fretting over manageable situations. Instead of worrying, resolve to become a more calm problem-solver. One helpful first step is to divide your worries into written categories: “Not Important”, “Important” and “Can Be Solved” (practical worries) and worries that are “Important but Cannot Be Solved” (hypothetical worries).



Worry free and productive man on laptop
Limiting time spent worrying helps you become more productive.

If you’re a chronic worrier, you’ll notice many of your worries are hypothetical. What if I get sacked? What if I fail my exams? What if I get sick? As I mentioned earlier, chronic worriers find it hard to control their worries; telling a worrier to “just stop worrying” doesn’t help.


One way of managing this problem is to keep a worry diary and postpone your worries to a designated “worry period” – around 20 to 30 minutes – each day (don’t do so late at night as it may interfere with sleep). When you become aware of a worry, jot it down on paper (a few words will do) and remind yourself you’ll have more time to properly think about it later – not now. In the meantime, focus on the present moment and the various tasks (working, studying, shopping, etc) you need to do. When “worry time” comes, reflect on your written worries for the allotted time, but no longer.


Worriers often predict they won’t be able to postpone their worrying, but are surprised to learn that they can do so much of the time. By limiting time spent worrying, the worry habit becomes less strong over time and helps you become more productive. Often, by the time you get to your scheduled worry time, you will no longer be bothered by many of the worries on the page.


This takes time but with practice, it gets easier. It may seem now like worry won’t leave your mind alone, to quote Ray Lamontagne again, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can learn to start taking control of your worries rather than letting them control you.