“Just stop worrying”, “think positive”, “don’t think about it” – if you’re a worrier, this isn’t helpful advice. A better idea, points out cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) expert Dr Robert Leahy, is to worry more effectively.
That means learning to distinguish between situations when you should pay attention to a particular worry, notes Leahy in his book The Worry Cure, and when to dismiss it.
The first step involves distinguishing productive worry from unproductive worry. Ask yourself: is this worry plausible or reasonable? Can I take action immediately? Can these actions lead to solutions? If so, take this worry and turn it into problem-solving as soon as possible.
For example, let’s say you are late for a college assignment. Is your worry plausible or reasonable? Yes. Can you take immediate action that leads to possible solutions? Yes (inform your tutor, ask for an extension, get working so you meet the new deadline, and so on). This is productive worry that is quickly turned into problem-solving.
Now, let’s say your tutor agrees to extend your deadline. You’re relieved, but then think: “What if he was only being nice and is privately angry with me? What if I don’t meet the new deadline? What if I keep missing deadlines and fail my exams? What if I flunk out of college? OMG, what would I do then? What would I say to my parents, they’d be so upset? Would I be able to get a job? What if my boyfriend got offered a job in London or somewhere and I was stuck at home? What if...”
Hang on, stop. Stop now. This is unproductive worry.
One sure sign of unproductive worry is worrying about a chain reaction of events, as in this example. Your worries multiply because you worry about one hypothetical event leading to another, eventually leading to catastrophe.
A second example, notes Leahy, is getting bogged down in unanswerable questions. Why did XYZ happen? Why is life so unfair? This rumination is, as Leahy puts it, ‘useless mental activity that keeps you from doing things that can be rewarding’.
He gives the example of one client who worried about his sales decreasing and who kept ruminating as to why it was happening. Eventually, he realised this was getting him nowhere, so he got problem-solving – in this case, making more calls to get more sales. As he made the calls, he ruminated less.
Instead of ruminating, ask yourself: what can I do to improve things? If there is no immediate action to be taken, then file it away as unproductive worry.
A third example of unproductive worry is when you reject possible solutions because they’re not perfect. People sometimes think a proper solution has no downside or negatives, but this is unrealistic.
For example, let’s say Bob is debating applying for a promotion. He lists five strong reasons to apply and identifies two disadvantages. He is about to apply but then starts worrying endlessly about the two disadvantages. This keeps him going around in an endless loop of rumination.
In reality, even good choices have costs and disadvantages. There is no perfect solution. The sooner Bob accepts this inescapable reality, the better.
Thinking you should keep worrying until you feel less anxious is the fourth type of unproductive worry listed by Dr Leahy. You may believe you should worry until you feel you have “done enough”, when you can’t think of anything else that you haven’t already gone over.
However, this only perpetuates the worry cycle. Instead, aim to accept some discomfort and cut back on the checking, the reassurance-seeking, the exhausting search for more information.
A fifth and related type of unproductive worry is believing you should worry until you control everything. You may think you cannot be comfortable unless you control everything, but life is uncertain. Many things cannot be controlled. Your aim should be to focus on what you can control and not fret about things that can’t be controlled.
To sum up, the five signs of unproductive worry are worrying about a chain reaction of events; worrying about unanswerable questions; rejecting imperfect solutions; worrying until you feel less anxious; and worrying about uncontrollable things.
Aim to give up this unproductive worry. To repeat Robert Leahy’s advice, worry more effectively.