By Paul Jozsef
Everyone worries from time to time. We generally do not have immediate control over the things we worry about. We typically tend to worry about undesirable future events, or about things that happened in the past that they wish turned out differently. The problem is, some of us have a tendency to worry about things more than is helpful.
Excessive worry can be accompanied by physical and/or psychological symptoms. We may experience physical symptoms such as: muscle tension, fatigue, and insomnia. Psychological symptoms may manifest as feelings of dread, anxiety and in some cases, depression.
So how do we stop worrying?
The unfortunate truth is that we will probably never be able to completely stop worrying. However, we can develop control over how we deal with our worries when we experience them. We can learn to worry more effectively. This is where ‘scheduled worry time’ comes in.
Scheduled worry time is a cognitive behavioural therapy technique whereby we are encouraged to set aside time specifically to ‘work through’ the things that we may be worried about. The time is scheduled for the sole purpose of considering what is causing us to feel anxious, nervous or concerned. At first, this technique may seem both difficult and counter-intuitive. However, with persistent practice, it can help us to significantly reduce the level of worrisome thoughts.
How does scheduled worry time work?
Scheduled worry time is a three-part process:
- Worry Awareness – Recognising when we experience worrying thoughts through mindfulness.
- Worry Delay – Acknowledging those worrying thoughts and placing them ‘on-hold’ to be dealt with later.
- Worry Time – Re-engaging with those worrying thoughts at the scheduled worry time and attempting to work through them one at a time.
Part 1: Worry Awareness – Recognising when we experience worrying thoughts through mindfulness
The first step is to recognise and ‘label’ our worrying thoughts. This process is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening in the present moment. In our case, noticing our worrying thoughts. The more we intentionally try to notice our thoughts, the easier the process will become. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if at first we don’t notice that we’re caught in a ‘worrying cycle’. As mentioned previously, this process takes practice.
Once we become aware that we are worrying, we try to accept that we are in fact worrying. We try to accept what we are currently experiencing. We try not to judge ourselves for worrying. Rather, we try to acknowledge the fact that we noticed, that we were mindful of the experience of worry.
Part 2: Worry Delay – Acknowledging those worrying thoughts and placing them ‘on-hold’ to be dealt with later
Once we have become aware of our worrisome thoughts, the next step is to try to actively place the worrisome thoughts ‘on-hold’. That is, we try to disengage from our worry until a later scheduled time. At this point, it can be helpful to note down our worry to remind us what the thought was. If you feel confident, you can simply remember the nature of the worrying thought.
This is the hardest step. We often feel that by worrying, we will ‘solve’ or ‘prevent from occurring’ what it is that is worrying us. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. What usually tends to happen is that we become caught in a ‘worry cycle’; we ruminate.
This is where we use mindfulness. We try to notice and acknowledge that we are worrying. We try to accept our worrisome thoughts. We then try to delay worrying until our scheduled worry time.
As mentioned above, this is the hardest part. Sometimes we feel the urge to worry. Sometimes by not worrying we may begin to feel anxious. Try to remember, this takes practice. Try to notice the feelings that come up when you delay your worrying. Try to notice how they make you feel. Are you able to sit with them?
Part 3: Worry Time – Re-engaging with those worrying thoughts at the scheduled worry time and attempting to work through them
The third step is to use the scheduled worry time. This is the assigned time (perhaps around 20 minutes or so) during which we allow ourselves to go over all the worrisome thoughts that we put on-hold throughout the day.
Once it is our scheduled worry time, it’s best to try not to do anything else other than work through the worrisome thoughts that we noted throughout the day. It is best not to engage in any other activities that may distract us from our aim of focussing on our worries.
Once we’ve re-engaged with the worries we noted throughout the day, we try to consider each of the worries one by one. We try to examine the nuances of each of the worries. We try to understand why they arose. We try to notice how the worries feel after we’ve revisited them.
Scheduled worry time helps us in three ways: 1) helping us become more mindful of the way we worry (and think); 2) showing us that we’re are able to sit with any anxiety that delaying our worries may bring up; and most importantly, and 3) allowing us to notice that perhaps what we thought were insurmountable worries, relative to our other worries, aren’t really that big of a deal.
Scheduled worry time allows us to view our concerns from a better vantage point. It helps us better prioritise our worries. It may also allow us to see what we thought were insurmountable worries may not be that big of a deal after all.
Of course, there may be times when our worries are in fact as troublesome as we originally experienced them. In these cases, we may need to make plans to take actions, such as actively preparing for a future situation or talking with a trusted friend or colleague. If a worry is persistent and concerning, mental health practitioners are also a good port of call.
It needs to be emphasised that this technique only works with practice (and patience). Just as we can’t expect ourselves to be piano virtuosos the first time we sit down at a piano, similarly, we need time to retrain how we worry. Learning to recognise our worries and thoughts take practice. Change will probably not happen overnight. With practice, we can learn to worry more effectively.
Borkovec, T., Wilkinson, L., Folensbee, R., & Lerman, C. (1983). Stimulus control applications to the treatment of worry. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(3), pp. 247-251.
Delgado, L., Guerra, P., Perakakis, P., Vera, M., Reyes del Paso, G., & Vila, J. (2010). Treating chronic worry: Psychological and physiological effects of a training programme based on mindfulness. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(9), pp. 873-882.
McGowan, S., & Behar, E. (2012). A preliminary investigation of stimulus control training for worry: Effects on anxiety and insomnia. Behavior Modification, 7(1), pp. 90-112.