science of us

How to Worry Better

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As someone whose anxiety often keeps her up at night, I’ve never once thought that all that worrying could be good for me. If you tried to tell me otherwise, I’d probably just roll my eyes at you, then worry about hurting your feelings.

But hear me out, fellow worriers: I was wrong. Unsettling and fearful thoughts aren’t always a bad thing. In a study published earlier this year in Social & Personal Psychological Compass, the authors argue that worry can be “an emotional buffer by providing a desirable contrast to subsequent affective reactions.” In other words, when we worry about something terrible happening, however unpleasant, it prepares us for whatever follows, making the situation seem not so bad.

“People who worry a lot do feel a bit better about bad news and extra great about good news,” says study co-author Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “We found this pattern in a study of law school grads awaiting news about their bar exam result. People who were more worried about their result felt better about their result either way, compared to people who sailed through the waiting period with relative ease.”

Worrying can also be a great motivator, Sweeny adds.  “It draws our attention to bad things that might happen to us, and then it pushes us to take action to prevent those fates. People who worry more about car accidents are more likely to wear their seatbelt.” And if you’re worried about, say, a job interview, you’re probably going to spend more time practicing and preparing.

The key to reaping the benefits of worrying, many experts believe, is to find the right middle ground. “A little worry or anxiety can be motivating, too much can be counterproductive,” says Sarah Kate McGowan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “When someone feels like their worry occurs frequently, out of their control, and interferes with their life, those are signs that they should consider meeting with a mental health provider.” But when someone has their worrying under control, it can be constructive, a force for positive change. Here are some approaches to help you find that ideal balance.

Schedule “worry time.”
“Worry is like a liquid,” McGowan says. “It will fill the space you provide it, so it’s important to set time limits and be productive with that time.”

In a 2013 study, McGowan and her colleagues found evidence for the effectiveness of a technique called stimulus control training for worry, a tactic sometimes used in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
“The goal is to move the worrying out of the sleep environment,” McGowan explains, so that it doesn’t interfere with the process of falling asleep.

How it works: Carve out a small chunk of time each day — ideally always at the same time and place — to focus on your worries. This way, McGowan explains, by the time bedtime rolls around, you’ve already addressed everything that’s making you anxious. The key is to be productive while worrying, she adds, whether that means writing down any thoughts or concerns, creating a to-do list, or actively trying to solve the problems that the worries present. In short, stimulus control training gives you the space to entertain your worries and then either (a) shift your focus, or (b) come up with a solution that allows you to move on.

Separate productive thoughts from unproductive ones.
Worrying that your job interview might not go well because you haven’t prepared? Legitimate concern. Worried that the hiring manager will be that dude you cut off in traffic two weeks ago? That’s probably a waste of your mental energy.

In the Anxiety and Worry Workbook, authors David A. Clark and Aaron T. Beck ask readers to “determine whether the worry is about a realistic problem or an imagined (‘what if’) situation.” If it’s the latter, try to just let it go. If it’s the former, then the next step is to ask yourself if the worry is productive: Does worrying about this lead to an action that will solve your problem or help you make progress on your goals? If so, it could be worth indulging. If not, it’s best to weed it out.

“Given that worry is at its most useful when it motivates us to do something, my best advice is to run through a mental checklist,” Sweeney suggests. “Ask yourself, is there anything I could be doing to improve my chances of a good outcome, or to prepare myself for a bad outcome? If the answer is yes, then worry can motivate you to take those actions. If the answer is no, then it’s time to look for ways to reduce your worry.”

You also want to weed out rumination, which is related to but slightly different from worrying. When you worry, you’re focused on events that might happen in the past. When you ruminate, on the other hand, you’re dwelling on stuff that’s already happened, replaying the incidents in your head (why did I say that stupid thing at the party?). Rumination, like “what if” thoughts, is generally unproductive; by definition, it’s about things you can’t change.

Find a conclusion.
“Worry,” as one 2002 study put it, “consists largely of attempted problem solving.” One possible reason for deep, ongoing worry, the authors write, “may be a failure to bring problem solving to a satisfactory conclusion.”

This is why stimulus-control training involves working through your worries by solving the ones that are solvable. But the amount of effort that requires can vary: Sometimes the solution is straightforward, and sometimes you have no idea where to even start, which can make you worry even more.

Journaling is one way to help with that. As Paul Glovinsky, clinical director of the St. Peter’s Sleep Center in Albany, New York, recently explained in the Strategist:

A good thing to do is at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., after dinner, we have somebody keep a journal. They just sit down, and for five minutes, they allow themselves to worry, to say, ‘What’s the problem tonight?’ They list it on one side of the page, and on the other side, they have to come up with some rebuttal, work-around, next step, something.

If nothing else, writing down your worry allows you to file it away for later and get it out of your head. “Some of these problems are going to be big, and most of these problems are not going to be solved by sitting in a chair, but you don’t have to solve them,” Glovinsky said. “You just have to satisfy yourself that you’re not going to forget them, and that’s why putting them on the page is important.” So even if you don’t come to a solution with your worry, at least you’ve come to a temporary conclusion — you can set it aside, at least for a while.

Be kind to yourself.
If you’re still struggling to contain your worries, try taking your mind off them, Sweeny suggests. Throw yourself into an activity you enjoy, preferably one that gets you into a “flow state,” where you lose yourself in what you’re doing. (As much of a buzzword as it’s become, she adds, mindfulness meditation can be quite effective for this.)

The idea is to create distance from your worry so you aren’t as consumed by it. Especially if your worry presents a solvable problem, that distance may be just what you need to find a solution. So if you’re ruminating over that dumb joke your boss didn’t seem to get, it might be a good time to start the language lessons you’ve been meaning to take. It sounds kind of ridiculous, I know, but again, the goal is to give yourself an enjoyable alternative to worrying.

To put it another way: When you notice you’re stuck in the worry cycle, then doing something to get out of it is both the productive and the compassionate thing to do. Beating yourself up for worrying can only make things worse. “We all worry to varying degrees,” McGowan says, “so it’s important to be kind to ourselves when we notice we are worrying in an unhelpful way” — and to know the difference between worrying that hurts and worrying that moves us forward.

How to Worry Better