Overthinking and Worry
Do you identify as being a ‘worrier’? Learn four evidence-based strategies for taking back control of your unruly thoughts.
We meet many individuals who are battling with worry. There is a distinctive pattern to unhelpful worry which (when you know what you are looking for) is easy to spot and is also relatively easy to tame. We call this pattern of thinking, generalised anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder or GAD, and if it affects a whopping 3-5% of the population. To find out if you are experiencing GAD then complete this self-assessment quiz here.
Individuals with generalised anxiety typically identify themselves as ‘worriers’. This pattern of thinking has likely been around for some time. It’s 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 at an excessive level and often feels overwhelming. Many people with GAD experience difficulty sleeping with an overactive mind. Digestive issues are also widespread alongside this form of anxiety.
In this article, we provide the four most helpful strategies for taking back control of your mind and no longer feeling at the mercy of your worries. These strategies are 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 considerable anxiety/ distress or don’t find self-help to be effective, then you may benefit from the additional support of a therapist.
Strategy 1- Log it
Keep a worry diary over the next three days. Include the following in the log:
· The date and time that you encountered the worry
· Name the worry. Very important, don’t skip this step. If you think “I am worried about ‘work'” then ask yourself, what is it about work that concerns me. 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 know 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 worrying about 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 worries that you experience. You will also get a reasonable estimation of exactly how long you actually spend worrying. Armed with this information, you will want to decide on what to do with these worries. The following sets out what to do for Real Worries and what to do with Hypothetical Worries.
Problems that are rooted in the here and now are relatively easy to resolve. 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. Get in touch if you would like a copy of this fact sheet.
Future-oriented worries often begin with ‘what if’. As the name ‘hypothetical’ implies, these worries haven’t happened yet. Individuals with GAD can often recognise their minds are like ever-expanding tree branches. Where every tree-branch (or ‘what if’) has further branches (what if’s) reaching out and creating luscious worry trees! Nothing can be done for future hypothetical problems because the very essence of this type of worry is that it hasn’t happened yet! And if there is something that can be done to prevent it – then it is a real worry.
We want to say to ourselves “I don’t need to worry about it”. I am guessing you have probably already tried this! You will know, it is tough to block out 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 about deeply. 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 step 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). You will 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’.
Often it feels that worries are with you ‘all-the-time’. So much so as that when you stop still ( think about when trying to sleep), bang, there they are! You can learn to take back control of your mind by scheduling a 20-30 minute dedicated worry block every day. Tips It is 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 when they pop into my head”. iI is essential that you learn to bring your mind back to the ‘here and now’. We call this mindfulness. When caught up with worries, you are 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 happiness.
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 driver’s seat of your thoughts and effectively dealing with worries, both hypothetical and real. 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.