Most of us have found ourselves worrying from time to time. For those times when we have our coping resources stretched, learning to manage worry can be an important part of looking after ourselves.
What is worry?
Worry is something we do. Specifically, worry is a process of thinking, using language, that revolves around identifying problems. For example, if an individual was worrying about an upcoming test, they may think about not having studied enough, not being intelligent enough, being too tired to concentrate, having studied in an ineffective way, etc. Notice that in this example, potential solutions to these problems are not considered. The process of worry revolves exclusively around identifying problems.
It is helpful to understand worry as the very initial step of problem solving. Structured problem solving involves several steps including; identifying problems, identifying solutions, evaluating solutions, putting solutions into place, and evaluating solutions. When we worry, we remain in the problem identification phase of problem solving.
Why do we worry?
Worry can be a healthy means of anticipating danger and keeping us safe. There are obvious benefits to identifying problems. Say for example, an individual hears a large CRASH outside. In this instance, worry is helpful in allowing us to quickly identify real danger.
How can worry become a problem?
When excessive, worry can negatively impact our emotional health. This is because through worry, we avoid fully experiencing distressing images, feelings, or sensations. Worry prevents us from making sense of these experiences. Say for example, an individual feels panic accompanied by a mental image of failing a test. Excessive worry tends to replace healthy coping behaviours such as perspective taking, problem solving, or seeking support. Paradoxically, because worry involves so much attention on problems, excessive worry tends to leave us feeling worse.
How can we tell if our worry is a problem?
Psychologists have explored whether there is a difference between the worry experienced by the average person, and the worry experienced by people whose worry is chronic or excessive. Several characteristics of problematic worry have been identified. We have learnt that problematic worry:
- Revolves around imagined problems or problems unlikely to ever occur.
- Involves over-estimating the severity of potential negative outcomes.
- Is linked to a false positive belief that worry prevents real life problems from occurring.
- Is linked to a false positive belief that worry is helpful in solving problems.
It can be helpful for us to reflect on our own worry behaviour. We can ask ourselves if any of the above characteristics resonate with our personal experience.
How to manage worry?
There are several simple strategies that may help to manage excessive or chronic worry.
- When feeling anxious and thinking about a problem, ask yourself: “Am I actually problem solving? Or am I just worrying; I.e. am I just identifying problems.” This can help to increase awareness of worry.
- Reality-test anxious thoughts: Ask yourself “how likely is it for this negative outcome to occur?” “How severe would be the consequences really be if this negative outcome were to occur?” “How would I advise a friend in a similar situation?”
- Engage in structured problem solving. Brainstorm solutions, evaluate solutions, put something into place, and evaluate whether your solution was effective.
- Reduce distress by using slow breathing or listening to relaxation audio tracks. Two examples of free smart phone apps that have relaxation activities include ‘Headspace’ and ‘Smiling Mind.’
- Allocate time for self-care activities that are soothing. Examples could include a warm bath, cooking a favourite meal, making a hot drink, or listening to music.
Why do some struggle with worry?
It’s important to note that each of us have individual vulnerabilities to problematic worry. These are a combination of several factors including our genes, our personalities, and our previous experiences.
Do I need professional help?
Some of us will require professional help to regain control over worry. A helpful question to ask is – is my worry impacting my ability to do the things I want to do? If the answer is yes, it may be helpful to speak to a mental health professional. Fortunately, there are well-researched, evidence-based psychological treatments available for problematic worry. For more information or to take a first step in accessing professional help, speak to your GP or ask to speak to a clinician at RWA Psychology – Family Matters.
Richard works with adolescents from 12 years of age, and adults. He finds helping other blokes to improve their emotional health and wellbeing to be particularly rewarding.