Many of us experience the nagging presence of worry. About to drift off to sleep? Not so fast, you forgot to worry about tomorrow. Feeling excited about your new job? Wait, did you think about all that could possibly go wrong? This pattern of a thought or emotion followed by worry or anxiety is very common.
Take a moment to reflect on how you usually respond to this pattern. For many people, the worry and anxiety then takes on a new intensity, quickly crowding out the initial thought or emotion and replacing it with a flood of new thoughts and feelings that overwhelms us. Or, we recognize the presence of the worry and focus on trying to get rid of it. But the more we try, the louder that worry becomes.
Would you be willing to try a new approach? Instead of trying to force the worry to leave, what if we made room for it? What if we allowed the worry to remain and decided to put our saved energy toward actually living?
Here’s the problem: our efforts to eliminate anxiety often suffice in the short term, but we are quickly forced to intensify those efforts as anxiety returns, stronger and more determined to influence us. We may think of anxiety as “bad”, or that getting rid of anxiety is necessary for achieving happiness. This creates a cycle that results in increased physical and mental anxiety, often spreading into many different areas of our life. By removing yourself from the struggle to eliminate anxiety, you weaken that cycle and free up all that extra energy to put toward actually living your life.
The next time you experience the presence of worry or anxiety, think about this new approach. Here are some ways to begin:
Make a time each day to deal with your worries, e.g. for 15 minutes between 6pm and 6:15pm every night.
Throughout the day, when worrying arises, acknowledge it: “I’m having a worry about X” Or, if it’s a recurrent story, give it a title, and acknowledge it, “Here’s the X,Y,Z story”. Simpler still, silently say to yourself, “Just worrying”. Let the thoughts come and go and bring your attention back to where you are and what you’re doing.
Don’t try to push the worry away. Let the worry come and go as it pleases, while engaging mindfully in doing activities that you value. Thank your mind each time the worry reappears, or silently say to yourself “Just worrying”.
If it’s a major worry that keeps on coming back again and again, then write it down and say to yourself, ‘Thanks, mind! I’ll give this my full attention later, in my worry period’ (If there’s lots of recurrent worries, write them on a list.)
During your worry period, go through all the things you’ve been worrying about. If you’ve written a list, read through each worry and see if it still worries you.
For each worry, ask yourself: “Is there anything constructive I can do about this?” If there is something useful you can do about it, then make a plan of action. If there’s nothing you can do, then acknowledge that.
Finish up by practicing the ‘leaves on a stream’ exercise – putting each worry onto a leaf, and letting it float on by. Ideally do this for about ten minutes.
Once the worry period is over, do some meaningful activity.
Adapted from Hayes, S. C. & Strosahl, K. D. (2005). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New York
Jackie Henry, PsyD
Jackie Henry, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders and mood symptoms related to life transitions in Inver Grove Heights, MN.