Experimenting with Worry

For something fun - and to avoid having to write a blog myself – I set some of our Hope Street Volunteers on an adventure. Maybe less adventure, more psychological experiment. An experiment around worry.

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life. Most of which has never happened.” Mark Twain.

We all worry from time to time. We generally do not have immediate control over the things we worry about. We typically tend to worry about undesirable future events, or about things that happened in the past that we wish turned out differently. The problem is, some of us have a tendency to worry about things more than is helpful.

Worrying is different to thinking. Thinking is a good thing.  It involves reflection and analysis that leads to greater clarity and purposeful action, when action is necessary. Worrying, on the other hand, is essentially problem solving gone awry. What starts out as concern over an issue, eventually turns into preoccupation; that’s worry.  Worrying is also a common go-to in times of uncertainty.

The unfortunate truth is that we will probably never be able to completely stop worrying. However, we can develop control over how we deal with our worries when we experience them. We can learn to worry more effectively. And this is where the experiment came in – Scheduled ‘Worry Time’.

Scheduled Worry Time is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) 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 counter-intuitive. However, with persistent practice, it can help us to significantly reduce the level of worrisome thoughts.

The ’Worry Time’ Experiment steps were pretty straightforward:

  1. Schedule ‘worry time’ each day for one week. Put it in your calendar. Start by setting aside 10-30 minutes during the morning or afternoon.  This will be your worry time.  It’s best not to schedule worry time right before you go to bed, for obvious reasons.
  2. During that 10-30 minute window, write down all of your worries that you can think of. Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve them during that window, but if your mind naturally goes there, that’s fine.
  3. Between worry times: if you start to worry, tell yourself to let go of those thoughts until the next designated worry period. This will feel hard at first, and may require a lot of reinforcing self-talk (e.g., telling yourself over and over to let go of thinking about your worries until it’s the appropriate time). Try not to worry about worrying outside of your worry time! You won’t be perfect with this exercise, nobody is.  But, your intention and effort will make a difference.

Simple. To see if it had any psychological benefit whatsoever, let’s hear from our first Human Guinea Pig (and favourite Creative Person) - Trudy!

I come from a short lineage but absolute world-class heritage of worry. Just ask my sister or Dad (but don’t, they don’t like attention and it will stress them out). I’m a different type of worrier - and I’ve even got the incredibly trendy patch on my jacket to prove it.

Maybe 10 or less years ago, I think I developed this idea that I was here to fix shit. Whilst this felt like a practical role at the time, I now realise that it was just like being a character where I saw that people around me were being eaten up with worry, and if I just fixed things, there would be less to worry about. Nowadays, I try really hard to allow people to worry for themselves, which is good, but my worry has morphed into another weird role.

Over the last few years, I thought this had initially developed into behaviour that allowed me to ‘avoid confrontation’ but in actual fact, it’s this fancy prediction trick, where in a situation that requires me to put myself first, and raise an issue that I would like changed, my imagination tells me that in correcting this, the sky will positively fall. Avoid it, and it’ll just simmer down and things will be fine. So I don’t have to tell the person who I think is not being nice to me, because they’ll yell at me. And I don’t have to tell the person who is making me feel uncomfortable, because they’ll tell me I am being sensitive. And I won’t tell the person who is eating with their mouth open that it weirds me out, because they’ll just burst into tears. I’m constantly worried that people will not accept my needs, and this will make things worse. So I just decide that it’s too hard, and I swallow the worry and live through it. I know this is silly. I watched enough of the early seasons of Ally McBeal to know that I’ll eventually implode if I keep this behaviour up. And in most instances, after I implode, people around me will be all like "Whoah, where did Trudy go? Did that just happen coz she didn’t tell me that my behaviour was hurting her? Awkward. She should have just told me."  

I had originally concocted a plan for this experiment, where I was going to share my worries with someone else, and we were to dedicate our allotted 30 minutes to each other. Given that this friend was in a completely different timezone, this didn't work out as well as we’d hoped. But it did make me think I was holding onto worry for another moment for the first week. It was a pretty freeing feeling, as I compartmentalised it for a later moment (I also had decided that she was going to solve everything for me as well, so I really put it off).  

One instance I can recall, during a time when I was still holding off to talk to my friend, I had actually not given the worry the time that I normally would. Concerned about an impending conversation, when it actually came to the time it got forced upon me, I’d not had the chance to entertain the imaginary situation that would have occurred, and so when the band-aid was ripped off, surprisingly, the conversation just happened, like normal. And it went fine. Even without all the worry time alloted to it. The sky didn't fall.

This - to me - was a big worry, and it became your general ‘proof is in the pudding’ example. After this, it felt like my worries paled in comparison, and really, if that went okay, how relevant were my imaginary scenarios?

Using designated worry time then felt practical. It felt like I was using time efficiently. And by efficiently, I mean it gave me more time to aimlessly scroll through instagram.

Would you recommend this practice to a friend who was worrying a lot? Do you think this might be useful as a strategy for someone experiencing anxiety?
Given that my only advice to friends when they worry is to just put their happiest shoes on, because that will instantly make them feel better, I can imagine this might be an option for providing a bit more evidence-based support.

What do you think the purpose of this experiment was?
To reinforce to me that I’m not a psychic (believe it or not).

Remember if you're interested in volunteering to be a part of similar adventures / psychological gifts / human experiments that don't have any ethical clearance, send us an email (hopestreetcards@gmail.com).

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