worried man

Overthinking and Worry

Do you identify as being a ‘worrier’? Learn 5 evidence based strategies for taking back control of your unruly thoughts.

We meet many individuals who are battling with overthinking. There is a distinctive pattern to unhelpful worry which (when you know what you are looking for) is easy to spot and is also fairly easy to tame. We call this pattern of worry, generalised anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder or GAD and if affects a whopping 5% of the population. If you are unsure if it is GAD or stress that you are experiencing you complete the Perceived Stress Scale.

Individuals with generalised anxiety typically identify themselves as ‘worriers’, this also reflects that this pattern of thinking has likely been present for some time and is often something we learn from our own parent/s ( one of which may also identify as a ‘worrier’). GAD tends to sneak up on people in the sense that it appears like normal worry, however it is worry at an excessive level and often feels overwhelming. Many people with GAD experience difficulty sleeping with an overactive mind. Digestive issues are also very common alongside this form anxiety.

In this article we provide the 4 most helpful strategies for taking back control of your mind and no longer feeling at the mercy of your thoughts. These strategies are based on evidence based treatment protocols utilising cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for GAD. For many people implementing these strategies yourself will be enough to bring about a significant improvement. If you experience significant anxiety/ distress or don’t find self-help to effective then you may benefit from the additional support of a therapist.

Strategy 1- Log your worries

Keep a diary over the next three days. Include the following in the log:
• The date and time that you encountered the worry
• Name the worry. This is very important, don’t skip this step. If you think “I am worried about ‘work’” then ask yourself, what is it about work that I am worried about. For example, not meeting a deadline, or not achieving a particular target.
• Determine if your worry is a ‘real’ here and now problem or a ‘hypothetical’ problem. Label each worry on your worry diary as R (real) or H (hypothetical).
An example of a real problem is “I have a big project to complete and I don’t where to start” -R . Versus a hypothetical problem “I have a big project to complete, what if I do a poor job of it?”- H
• Record how much time you spend stuck on each worry.


Strategy 2- What to do with worries.

At the end of the three days you will have valuable information about the types of thoughts that you have been experiencing and also a good estimation on exactly how long you actually spend worrying. Armed with this information you will want to decide on what to actually do with these worries. The following sets out what to do for Real Worries and what to do with Hypothetical Worries.

Real problems:

Problems that are rooted in the here and now are actually relatively easy to deal with. You may already be very skilled at dealing with real here and now problems. Even big problems can be broken down into smaller parts and specific steps can be implemented to solve real worries. If you are not doing it already it is helpful to follow something like the “7 Steps to Problem Solving” for each of your real worries.
7 Steps to problem solving. Fact sheet?

Hypothetical problems:

These future oriented thinking often begin with ‘what if’ and as the name implies they are centred on events that haven’t happened yet. Individuals with GAD can often recognise their minds are like ever expanding tree branches, where every branch (or ‘what if’) has further branches (what if’s) reaching out and creating luscious worry trees! It is really important to recognise there is nothing to be done for future hypothetical problems, because the very essence of this type of thinking is that it hasn’t happened yet! And if there is something that can be done to prevent or address it– then it is real here and now problem.

As much as we would like to say to ourselves well I needn’t stress about it then ( I am guessing you have probably already tried this!), it is very hard to ‘not think’ something which is causing you anxiety. Instead of trying to rid your mind of hypothetical worries instead try the following:

First of all thank your mind for identifying something which you care deeply about. if you didn’t care you wouldn’t be worried! Next of all make a note of this worry (write it down), reassure yourself that it is important and schedule a time in your diary to address it. This leads directly to strategy number 3.


Strategy 3: Controlled Worry Period

You will by now have a list of hypothetical worries which you can’t just throw away (unfortunately) but you also recognise that endless worrying about problems which haven’t happened yet (and may not even happen) is not helpful either. Here enters the ‘controlled worry period’.

It probably feels that these worries are with you ‘all the time’ or certainly that they weigh heavy on your mind every time you stop still ( think about when you are trying to get to sleep). You can learn to take back control of your mind by scheduling a 20-30 minute block each and every day, dedicated for dealing with worries. It is most important that you schedule this for an afternoon or early evening, that you are armed with your list of worries and a paper and pen ( for brainstorming and problem solving), and that you designate a place for this worry that is ideally the same every day (and definitely not in bed!).

During this ‘worry period’ you can worry to your hearts content. Let your mind go crazy with worry. And outside of this worry time reassure yourself that
1. it is important- thank your mind for identifying something you care about
2. write it down and
3. delay thinking about it until your worry period that day.


Strategy 4- Mindfulness

I can hear you already saying, “yeah right, easier said than done, how do I not think about my worries whenever they pop into my head”. Following the three steps above is important and then it is important that you learn to bring your mind back to the ‘here and now’. We call this mindfulness. When you are caught up in your head you are often caught up in thinking about events that haven’t happened, may never happen and are generally worse in our thoughts than in real life. All of this thinking steals your attention and distracts you from the present moment. Getting caught up in worries can negatively impact relationships, sleep, digestion, immune functioning, work productivity and your capacity for joy.

Learn some quick and easy mindfulness strategies to help you to bring your attention back to the here and now.

Following the above strategies should have you back in the drivers seat of your thoughts and effectively dealing with a busy mind. Learning to manage generalised anxiety reduces cortisol levels, improves sleep and digestion, productivity, savouring and relationships. If you are experiencing high levels of distress or anxiety, or simply want some support to implement these CBT strategies then please get in touch with the PMW team.


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