Everyone worries from time to time. The problem is, some of us have a tendency to worry about things more than is helpful. Excessive worry can be accompanied by physical symptoms (such as tension, fatigue, or insomnia) or psychological ones (such as dread, anxiety, and sometimes depression). So how do we stop? The unfortunate truth is that we will probably never be able to completely stop worrying. However, we can learn to worry more effectively. This is where scheduled worry time comes in. Scheduled worry time is a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique whereby we are encouraged to set aside time specifically to work through the things that we may be worried about. The time is scheduled for the sole purpose of considering what is causing us to feel anxious, nervous or concerned. At first, this technique may seem both difficult and counterintuitive. However, with persistent practice, it can help us to significantly reduce the level of worrisome thoughts.
Scheduled worry time is a three-part process:
- Worry awareness – recognizing when we experience worrying thoughts through mindfulness.
- Worry delay – acknowledging those worrying thoughts and setting them aside for now.
- Worry time – re-engaging with those worrying thoughts at the scheduled worry time.
The first step is to recognize and label our worrying thoughts. This process is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening in the present moment, in our case, noticing our worrying thoughts. The more we intentionally try to notice our thoughts, the easier the process will become. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if at first we don’t notice that we’re caught in a worrying cycle. As mentioned previously, this process takes practice. Once we become aware that we are worrying, we try to accept that we are in fact worrying. We try to accept what we are currently experiencing. We try not to judge ourselves for worrying. Rather, we try to acknowledge the fact that we noticed, that we were mindful of the experience of worry. Once we have become aware of our worrisome thoughts, the next step is to try to actively disengage from our worry until a later, scheduled time. At this point, it can be helpful to note down our worry to remind us what the thought was. If you feel confident, you can simply remember the nature of the worrying thought. This is the hardest step. We often feel that by worrying, we will solve or prevent from occurring what it is that is worrying us. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. What usually tends to happen is that we ruminate. This is where we use mindfulness. We try to notice and acknowledge that we are worrying. We try to accept our worrisome thoughts. We then try to delay worrying until our scheduled worry time. As mentioned above, this is the hardest part. Sometimes we feel the urge to worry. Sometimes by not worrying we may begin to feel anxious. Try to remember, this takes practice. Try to notice the feelings that come up when you delay your worrying. How do they make you feel? Are you able to sit with them? The third step is to use the scheduled worry time. This is the assigned time (perhaps around 20 minutes or so) during which we allow ourselves to go over all the worrisome thoughts that we put on hold throughout the day. Once it is our scheduled worry time, it’s best to try not to do anything else other than work through the worrisome thoughts that we noted throughout the day. It is best not to engage in any other activities that may distract us from our aim of focussing on our worries. Once we’ve re-engaged with the worries we noted throughout the day, we try to consider each of the worries one by one. We try to examine the nuances of each of the worries. We try to understand why they arose. We try to notice how the worries feel after we’ve revisited them.
Scheduled worry time helps us in three ways: 1) helping us become more mindful of the way we worry (and think); 2) showing us that we’re are able to sit with any anxiety that delaying our worries may bring up; and most important, 3) allowing us to notice that perhaps what we thought were insurmountable worries, relative to our other worries, aren’t really that big of a deal. Scheduled worry time allows us to view our concerns from a better vantage point. It helps us better prioritize our worries. It may also allow us to see what we thought were insurmountable worries may not be that big of a deal after all. Of course, there may be times when our worries are in fact as troublesome as we originally experienced them. In these cases, we may need to make plans to take action, such as actively preparing for a future situation or talking with a trusted friend or colleague. If a worry is persistent and concerning, mental health practitioners are also a good port of call. It needs to be emphasized that this technique only works with practice and patience. Just as we can’t expect ourselves to be piano virtuosos the first time we sit down at a piano, similarly, we need time to retrain how we worry. Learning to recognize our worries and thoughts take practice. Change probably will not happen overnight. With practice, we can learn to worry more effectively.
This article first appeared Psych Central, 3 February 2015.