Last reviewed 18 November 2013

Some are born worriers; some have worry thrust upon them; others go through life seemingly without a worry in the world. Val Moore looks at how to turn down the volume on your worries.

Two types of worry

If you are a worrier, someone telling you “not to worry” is unhelpful to say the least. Worrying can be debilitating and lead to errors and mistakes, as one’s full attention is not on the task in hand, whether that is caring for children, driving a car or the thousand and one things that demand our attention during the day.

Worries can be in two main categories. “Real worries”, that is, a problem which really exists, such as “I have a large credit card bill to pay and not enough money” as against “hypothetical worries”, which are often “what if?” worries, such as “what if my partner has an accident?”, a situation where the event is unlikely but causes worry nevertheless.

A real worry needs a practical solution. Continuing to worry without action is pointless.

Some worriers continue to worry about the different ways in which a problem can be solved. The results of these various solutions generate more problems and often offer a labyrinth of alternatives without ever solving the original problem.

Alternatively, worriers find tackling the problem “all too difficult” so they decide to take “time out” and do something else. They are being productive, but not solving the original problem, which results in more worrying!

How to reduce the worry

You need to practice. Start with a simple problem and describe it. Decide on small incremental actions that need to be done to solve the problem. It may be that there are various solutions. Write them all down and choose the one that seems a bit better, or more logical than the others (the simplest is usually the best). Do the first thing first and take the steps in logical order. Review the outcome — is it okay? It does not have to be brilliant, okay is fine.

Stick with it and solve the problem that is causing the worry. Ask the questions “what?” “how?” “when?” “where?”. “What can I do to pay off my credit card bill?”, “How is the best way to go about it?”, “When do I believe I can solve this by and where are the funds coming from?”

One solution may look like this.

  1. How much can I realistically afford to pay each month? (perhaps give up that latte on the way to work; £2.50 x 20 days = £50)

  2. Call the credit card company to explain the problem:

    • ask if they will stop interest accruing and arrange to repay at an affordable amount

    • explain how and why you have arrived at the amount you can afford to pay.

  3. Do not allow yourself to be talked into repayments you cannot afford — if pressured say you “need time to think and you will call them back”.

  4. Review why you made the decision and go back and discuss it again with them.

  5. Confirm the offer in writing.

  6. Make the payments in full and on time.

There you are — the problem is solved.

What if it is imaginary?

For hypothetical worries, problem solving techniques will not work. In these instances people worry about scenarios that are unlikely to happen, but would be catastrophic if they did. Emotionally they may feel almost as if they have happened, leading to more anxiety. We are all aspirational, wanting to do the best we can, and have the best we can, and hypothetical worries are the fears that we could lose what we have. Loved ones may be taken away from us; we may lose financial security; there may be problems in relationships (work and social) or ill health. Although none of these may actually be happening, the fear that they might is real.

You must challenge this negativity.

Worrying about bad things that may happen? Think about something bad that has happened in the past. Did worrying beforehand actually help when the situation arose? No. Did the bad things worried about happen as imagined? No. Can we worry about all possible eventualities? No.

Train yourself to worry less. In a quiet time, write about just one hypothetical event that makes you worry. Write as if it were a book with all the fears and uncertainties — it does not have to have an ending (it is perhaps better if it does not) — write a cliffhanger. With hypothetical worries there is a tendency to go round in circles; writing is linear and should help break this cycle. Having written it, re-read it every day and desensitise yourself to it. Then go on to the next.

It could be helpful to allow yourself “worry periods”. Give yourself a set time each day (say 5.30 to 5.45pm) when you will worry and if worries come into your head outside these times, write them down. Remind yourself that you will have time to think about it later, at the allotted time, so there’s no need to worry about it right now. Save it for later and continue to go about your day.

Hypothetical worrying is usually focused on the future. Try staying in the present. Rather than postponing your worries as discussed above, observe future worries from the present, acknowledge them and let them go — they are in the future; you are in the present. “Observe” is the key word: see them from an outside perspective as something distant. Feel how you are in the present — the problems are in the haze of time. It is a simple form of meditation. Feel how your body feels, the rhythm of your breathing, what drifts across your mind. Have an anxious thought that is a future (not) problem, then bring yourself back to the present.

Sleep well

Waking up during the night and then being unable to go back to sleep as the mind becomes active with a worry (real or hypothetical) is common, and problems often seem worse in the darkness.

Be firm with yourself and tell yourself that it is the middle of the night and there is nothing that can be done at this point. Write down the worry and firmly tell yourself to go back to sleep. Block out the worry by silently singing a relaxing tune. If the worry comes back — revert to the tune.

If you can’t control it, get help

Once a worrier, probably always a bit of a worrier — it may be in your make-up: but it can be controlled with practice.

However, should you find that worrying is causing real anxiety to you and those around you, do get professional help.

And remember, “It ain't no use putting up your umbrella till it rains!”