Excessive worrying, persistent negative thoughts and uncontrollable anxiety might be leading you to neglect yourself and daily tasks. This can affect your work, managing your home and finances as well your relationships with colleagues, friends and family. It will leave you feeling drained and disengaged. You can feel yourself creating distance between you and everyone around you, especially your loved ones, which is exactly what you don’t need right now. More stress, more upset, further loneliness.
You need to break the cycle.
Worrying usually manifests in a vicious circular motion; starting with whatever your worrying thought might be, ‘what if…‘ and leading to your physical anxiety symptoms (racing thoughts, quick heartbeat, shallow breath, dry mouth). This usually has a behavioural response such as avoidance, biting your nails or becoming irritable and snapping at those around you which only exacerbates your emotional response (tearful, frustrated, embarrassed) and that likely causes you to worry even more…Then this all starts again. If you are someone that suffers with anxiety and overthinking you might find yourself stuck in this place for hours, which is where neglecting your to-do list will really become noticeable…before you know it, the day is over, it’s the end of the work day or it’s time to pick the kids up from school and you’ve done nothing for hours now.
1) Drop your beliefs that worrying is worthwhile. Understand that whilst planning and organisation can be helpful in preventing future catastrophes, worrying does absolutely nothing to benefit you in this situation. It is not necessary to allow you to plan, it doesn’t show you care or motivate you to do better – you can do all those things without worrying and ruminating, they are not uncontrollable so don’t let them control you.
2) Classify your worries as either practical or hypothetical. I spoke about this in my previous blog but this is basically separating to need-to-dos; ‘i need to book a doctors appointment’, ‘I have a meeting at 4pm’ and ‘I need to pay my rent’ from the what ifs, ‘what if theres nothing wrong with me when I go to the Doctor? What if there’s something really wrong but they don’t know what it is? What if it’s a rare disease? What if it’s missed and I die?‘…you can see how this escalates out of hand. ‘What if I’m late for my 4pm meeting? What if they ask me questions I don’t know the answers to? What if I spill my coffee all over the table and embarrass myself? What if I say something I shouldn’t and get fired?‘ It goes on and on. For practical worries, we are able to either get it sorted there and then or schedule an action plan to complete the task at a point where you have sufficient time to do so. Unfortunately, with a hypothetical worry, really, the key is to let it go. This is easier said than done, which is where distraction techniques are going to come in useful and I will discuss these in the next blog.
Hypothetical worries are those related to future situations and things that might or might not happen, they usually sit in one (or all) of these categories: unimportant, unlikely, uncertain and uncontrollable. Is it really important? Will you care about this in five years time? You have got over things much bigger than this, ground yourself. How likely is it that this could even ever happen? Anything can happen, but this is probably not likely at all. Don’t waste your time on problems that don’t exist. Is it worth worrying about something you’re not even certain will happen? Get back to the here and now where things are currently happening, ground yourself. Finally, some things really are uncontrollable. Relinquish control, the result will be the same no matter how hard you worry. Let it go, ground yourself.
3) Keep a worry diary. Start managing your worries – you can do this by writing them down at the time (or later) and even taking notes on your phone if you’re not a pen-to-paper person. Often, simply writing the worry down is a huge relief and alleviates some of the stress but it’s also useful as an active process to decide whether your worries are hypothetical or practical. As soon as you identify them as hypothetical (most overthinkers/worriers are likely to have a very high percentage of hypothetical worries) you might find that you ‘click’ with how unimportant they are in the grand scheme of things, they’re not real, they’re not happening, they’re not a threat. You could even list your worries with an anxiety rating, how anxious each worry makes you feel on a scale of 1-10 and by the end of the day you’ll be able to differentiate between your big worries and small ones.
Worrying can interfere with your day more severely than you realise, as often we are unaware of the triggers and, strangely, unaware that we are even worrying. For me, I just kind of feel stressed, overwhelmed, indecisive and an indescribable feeling of ‘nothingness’…I feel a bit blank, like I’m standing still in the centre of craziness in a film whilst the world revolves around me and I’m just not doing anything, going anywhere or making any decisions because I have no thoughts or feelings. Acknowledging your worries and what they are about is a really important step but you need to get specific.
4) Schedule your ‘worry time’. Not first thing in the morning and not before bed, but a little bit of time in the day that you can just look over your list and reflect. 20-30mins would be fine if you’re busy but feel free to schedule longer sessions. This is something that takes a lot of practice but eventually the idea is that your worries, that usually take up your entire day and lead you down nonsensical, hypothetical lanes, will be confined to this small period of time, allowing the small worries to fade away and the big ones to be dealt with with sufficient attention. There are a few rules to help with this:
- Postpone your worries until the decided time. Pop your thoughts down in your worry diary and put it on hold until then – you won’t forget about it, you’re simply postponing to a time that works better for you within your routine where you an worry about this thing as much as you like!
- Make a conscious decision to disengage from this topic until then. I do find this difficult, so this is where some distraction and attention control training will come in very useful, I’ll cover a few tips next week.
- Use the worry time! Sounds obvious, but for the strategy to work you do need to complete it. Reflect on how you felt when you first noticed these worries and how you feel about it now, you’ll probably find that a lot of them are irrelevant now and it surprising you were even worried enough to write it down.
- Stick to the allotted time. Don’t run over and don’t split it up. This is one point of the day you are allowed to worry and reflect – try and pick a time that’s going to be suitably fitting to your routine, hopefully you are able to do this at the same time every day.
- Once you’ve finished with your allotted time, throw the list away. Anything from now will be a new list which you’ll have time to go over tomorrow – you’ll probably find that some worries reappear and the likelihood is that they will do so until whatever you’re worrying about does or doesn’t happen. If it does, it’s a practical worry and will move into your usual to-do lists (as this is only for hypothetical worries) and if it never happened and the time has passed, you’ll be crossing it off anyway! For example: all week you’ve worried you’ll be late on Friday to your 6pm train. This could reappear every day on your hypothetical ‘what if‘ list but when it gets to Friday you either miss the train, in which case it becomes a practical worry that you have to deal with now either by calling in and missing your appointment, or getting the next train/some other transport but, after Friday, all those ‘what if I miss the train’ worries will be out of your head.
Let me know how you get on – do subscribe to receive the next post where I’ll explain some mindfulness tips you can practice as well as distraction techniques when those negative thoughts unfortunately take over.