Thoughts / worry time

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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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #6: WORRY EFFECTIVELY.

Challenge #6. Worry effectively.

How are your mental muscles feeling? Hope you are beginning to notice some of the effects of all this flexing.

We’re nearing the final part of our marathon. It’s time to talk worries.

We all worry about things we can’t change. There’s heaps of ‘what ifs?’ For some of us, it is an infrequent nuisance that ultimately causes very little long term stress or impairment. For other, worry can be a constant burden that leads to physical, psychological, and social upheaval. For some of us, worries bounce from topic to topic without any clear cause. For others of us, they focus on one primary issue (e.g., money, relationships). Some of us believe it is uncontrollable and some of us believe it is important for motivation.

In general, worry can be defined as a thought style that focuses on potential undesirable outcomes. Because it is often accompanied with the psychological and physiological symptoms of anxiety, worry can lead to fatigue, insomnia and other problematic outcomes.

Worry is usually an unproductive enterprise, though often we believe otherwise – thinking it is an important problem solving tool or a key factor in preventing problematic outcomes. This distorted belief is reinforced when the things we worry about rarely occur and then we might make the mistake of interpreting this fact as a sign that our worrying played a role in the outcome (I do this A LOT!) – ‘I worried, my feared outcome didn’t happen … looks like my worrying did the job.’ Reality is, the outcome would not have occurred even if we hadn’t worried but negative reinforcement is powerful.

If worrying about things you can’t change is something that you’d prefer to be less good at, today is the day to schedule it in your diary!

Scheduling your “worry time” to a single, 30-minute block each day can reduce your worries dramatically. Studies have shown that when patients with a mental illness are taught to catch themselves worrying throughout the day and then postpone their worries to the prearranged block of time, things seem less worrying. Even just realising that they were worrying can help people calm down, but stopping the worrying and saving it for later is the most effective technique.

Outside of this 30 minute window, if a topic prompts worry, acknowledge it, but try and delay thinking about it until the next scheduled worry time.  In this sense, we’re not ignoring the topic, but rather allotting a specific time for it during the day.  When the worry time window arrives, we can sit down and do nothing but worry for the entire span.  Sounds awful, right?

What makes this approach useful is what actually tends to happen is that once we embrace the approach and implement it into our daily routine.  First of all, we can learn that, even though worrying seemed uncontrollable, we are actually able stop worrying and delay the process until a later time.  As such, one distorted belief - that worry controls them rather than vice versa - is challenged.  Additionally, despite the belief that there is an infinite number of worries that could not possibly be covered in a mere 30 minutes, we can  find themselves bored no more than 10 minutes into the worry session.  At that point, we might realise that we are going over the same topic(s) repeatedly and that the worries are not as strong or anxiety provoking as they had seemed before.  In this way, we might find that we generally tend to worry about one small set of topics and that, when worrying is delayed, the urgency of those thoughts diminishes substantially.  

Worry time can help us take control of our own thoughts and to challenge any distorted beliefs about the importance of worry and their ability to control it.  If a topic truly requires concern, it will still be anxiety provoking when worry time comes around and we can work to enact a specific plan to adjust to those circumstances.  Most worries, however, will not have this impact and, as a result, we might find ourselves with a new sense of calm and a greater ability to handle ambiguity.

So today’s challenge is to set specific worry time. Need specific steps. Here they are:

This may feel strange and even silly to do, but try to not give in to those feelings and do it anyway.

  1. Schedule worry time each day for one week.  Put it in your calendar.  Start by setting aside 15-30 minutes during the morning or afternoon.  That 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 15-30 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. Writing the worrisome thoughts down can be therapeutic in and of itself, as it often lends perspective over what’s troubling, in a way that can be more powerful than internal reflection alone. Remind yourself of your intentions at the start and end of each time period.  For example, you might say to yourself: “This 15-30 minute block is for worry time, and I will do my best to not put attention on these worries outside of this time each day.”
  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.
  4. At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at what you wrote down over the course of that week.  Do you notice any patterns? Any repeat worries?  Any changes in the content of your worries?  Reflect on this data.  It’s common to find a “top ten” list of worries that get played out over and over again.
  5. After doing this for one week, consider trying it for another.  As you practice this more, you’ll start to notice an increased ability to control when and where you worry; it’s akin to strengthening your muscle of thought control.

If you’d like some more tips and info you can find it here. Here’s to a (hopefully) less worrisome day Marathoners!

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