We all worry… some more than others. A typical, stress-free morning commute for you might be a tense drive for someone else. A routine work presentation you don’t give a second thought might keep someone else awake for several nights. For many, worry is a chronic problem.
Robert Leahy, Ph.D., author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You, shares his tips and tricks for managing your worry.
1. Identify the problem.
Leahy says remember that worry is normal—38 percent of people say they worry every day. It becomes a problem when it interferes with your daily life; when you have trouble sleeping or concentrating, feel muscle tension or experience indigestion. “Research actually shows people who start out being chronic worriers end up depressed,” he says. “If you’re constantly focusing on negative things that could happen, you can’t really enjoy your life at the current moment because you’re worried about the future.”
2. Is it productive?
“Productive worry leads to actions that will solve the problem or make significant progress today,” Leahy says. For example, if you have an upcoming presentation, productive worry could be reviewing your PowerPoint or backing up your presentation on a flash drive. Unproductive worry would be thinking, What if the projector fails? or What if the people in the audience hate me? To get a grip on unproductive worry, you must be comfortable accepting uncertainty.
3. Don’t become a victim of Google-itis.
If you’re a chronic worrier, you might want to reduce the amount of time you spend on Google. Leahy says most people only use Google when they’re looking for certainty, which they probably won’t find. Keep your search to a minimum, especially if your worries are health-related.
4. Face the facts.
Most of our worries are unfounded. In fact, when researchers followed college students over the course of a year, they discovered 85 percent of the things students worried about had a positive or neutral outcome. For the things that turned out to have a negative outcome, 78 percent of people say they handled the situation well. Try keeping track of your worry predictions, too. If 85 out of 100 of your predictions don’t come true and you’re pretty good at solving problems when they do happen, that’s an indicator you should relax.
5. Enact the boredom technique.
“The boredom technique is a lot of fun,” Leahy says. Repeat your worried thought for 10 minutes a day (very slowly) until the thought becomes so boring it’s hard for you to pay attention to it. “It’s a very powerful technique,” he says. “People think Oh my god, that’s amazing. The thought I was so afraid of I now think is so boring I can hardly stay awake.” It’s essentially an exposure technique, much like someone afraid of an elevator would go up and down 50 times. “The boredom technique is very powerful and counterintuitive in a way.”
6. Set aside worry time.
If you’re the type of person who has worried thoughts enter your mind throughout the day, you should try this tactic. Set aside 20 minutes a day to sit down with your worries. If you have a preoccupation at 10 a.m. and your worry time is at 3 p.m., write it down and put it aside until that time. “I find every patient I’ve given this assignment to is able to do it to some extent,” Leahy says. “The power of the worry dissipates over time.”
7. Contemplate the outcomes.
When all else fails, think about the worry in simple terms. Leahy suggests pondering the worst possible, best possible and most likely outcomes. “People who worry equate uncertainty with a bad outcome,” Leahy says. Once you realize that even the worst possible outcome is something you can handle, you might feel more at ease.
8. Don’t forget to be self-aware.
Chronic worry can strain relationships. “If somebody is a chronic worrier, he may be seeking out reassurance from his partner or friends,” Leahy says. “While this can be helpful and supportive initially, over a period of time it can lead to conflicts.” If you’re constantly seeking out reassurance from others that doesn’t give you the perfect solution, that can lead to interpersonal issues. “The other thing is that if you’re constantly worried and just ruminating out loud with people, it becomes a bummer.”
Leahy has one very simple tactic: laugh. “When you’re laughing, you’re not worried, which is a good thing to keep in mind.” He nicknames this “silliness therapy” and says he uses it a lot, too.
Before you worry about being a chronic worrier (it’s a vicious cycle!), remember this: There is often a silver lining to worrying: “A lot of people who worry are very good at empathy,” Leahy says. “Because you’re really good at empathy, you’re often very concerned about what other people think and feel.”