terptree: What Me Worried? How To Manage Your Worrying…

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Thursday, 1 September 2016

What Me Worried? How To Manage Your Worrying…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about problem solving and I promised, at a later date, to bring you a email about how to manage worry.

Well, worry no more as you will be delighted to know that that date has arrived!!

So, when I am talking about worry in this email, I am talking about the type of worry you all experience from time to time that relates to general worry, as well as worry about a specific problem you may have. So for example I might worry that I will get a serious illness, but not actually have the specific problem of having that illness. This would be worrying unnecessarily about an event that may or may not happen – a “what if” situation.

Now the issue with worrying is that it is largely based on us making up stories in our head, and because our brain can’t tell the difference between a real and a highly imagined event, we have the same stress, anxiety or upset that we would have had if this event had actually occurred. In fact, when we are faced with a difficult situation or a horrible event happens in our life, normally our natural coping mechanisms kick in and we are able to do deal with the situation more ably than we do when we are worrying about something that may or may not happen.

I would like to share with you a story that illustrates this point..

Every day, without fail, I phone my mum (being the good daughter that I am). Both her and my dad are retired and have a fairly set routine. Unless they tell me they are going somewhere in particular, I can pretty much guarantee when they will be home and what the best time is to call (after 5pm normally). A few years ago on a warm spring evening, I rang them on my way home from work in London. I was sat on a train at the time. 5pm I rang and no answer. 5.15pm, still no answer. At this point, I wasn’t really too concerned. I guessed that they had been held up from going shopping. I kept trying..

5.30, 5.45, 6pm, still no answer. At this point I was getting off the train to pick my car up from the station car park and make the 30 minute drive home. Still no answer. By now I’m getting really worried. Where on earth were they?

I got back to my car and tried again. Still no answer. By now full panic had set in. I was absolutely convinced that my dad (who is not in the best of health to be fair) had been taken seriously ill and was in hospital. This was backed up by the fact that I couldn’t reach them on the landline or on either of their mobiles.

I got home in a state of turmoil. My head was pounding and I felt physically sick. I was having physical symptoms from a made up event. I rang as soon as I got in, around 6.45pm. Still no answer. 

I snapped at my husband and barked at the cat (pun intended!). 7pm, one last try before I started ringing their local hospitals or drove 60 miles into London to find them. Three rings and my mum answered, full of the joys of spring.

“Were have you been?” I all but screamed, “I’ve been worried sick”.

“What?” my mum replied, without a care in the world. “It’s a lovely evening, we’ve been sat on our balcony watching the sun go down over London, it’s a fantastic view”. I can’t dispute that fact, they are fortunate enough to live near the Oval Cricket Ground and you can see for miles over the Thames on a clear day from their balcony. Yet my mind hadn’t even gone there, I had immediately thought of the worst thing and made myself quite unwell in the process. And because the awful thing I had imagined had happened actually hadn’t happened, I had all these emotional and physical feelings with no where for them to go. 

I was also left with a very clear understanding of why I got screamed at in a similar fashion whenever I came home late as a child and rebellious teen. Oh how the roles were reversed in that situation!

It is important to recognise that worrying can be helpful if it spurs you onto take action about a problem. However, often worry can be paralyzing and we become pre-occupied with the worry rather than trying to find a solution.

Some people believe that worrying protects you from a bad thing happening, so it makes it even more difficult to break the worrying cycle. Worrying then becomes part of the problem, rather than the solution to the problem, whether that problem is real or perceived.

So if you are someone who worries, whether it is about a situation at work, financial worry, health, family or even because you have nothing to worry about, then read on for my top five techniques to managing your worry…

1. Postpone Worry

The truth of the matter is that telling ourselves not to worry is a fruitless exercise. By saying “don’t worry”, it actually makes us more likely to worry and makes it more important that we do so. Worrying also relieves our anxiety while we are doing it, because it distracts us from the thing we are worrying about. It doesn’t, however, stop anything bad from happening or solve any problems. 

Therefore, rather than becoming a completely “worry-free zone” it is more productive to have a set time of day to worry and postpone all of your worrying until that time of day. By creating a set time and place to worry you can ensure that the rest of the day becomes a “worry-free zone” and make you more productive. 

Never make this time just before bed and keep it to a reasonable length (say 20-30 minutes). Spend this time going over your worry list (plus doing the other techniques that follow). Allow yourself this time and at the end of it commit to postponing any more worry until the same time the next day.

2. Keep a Worry Diary

Every time you find yourself worrying, jot down the thought and what triggered it. Overtime you will start to see patterns of worry and will be able to put strategies in place to manage those situations. This is not a quick fix, but something that you need to commit to over time. To be clear, this is not the same as worrying, it is just documenting what you are worrying about. You can use this to formulate your “worry list” that you can use during your worry time and can then start to work on solutions if there is an actual problem, or to know what triggers you into unnecessary worry.

3. Learn to Accept Uncertainty

There are not many certainties in life, and we don’t know what will happen in the future. Thinking about all the things that could go wrong doesn’t make life any more predictable. In fact, it could be quite boring if we did know everything that was going to happen in life, either good or bad.

Sometimes we can view worrying as a way to control the future, or predict an outcome of something. However, if you can learn to accept uncertainty, this will cut down how much you worry as you begin to realise there is no way you can predict the outcome of an event (if I could do this I would surely have won the lottery by now!), so worrying becomes a fruitless exercise.

4. Challenge your Thinking

Often worry can be triggered by the thoughts you are having. So for example, if you are stuck in a traffic jam on your way to a job or important meeting, you may have thoughts like “I’m never going to get there in time”, or “They will think I am lazy if I am late”. No while these may be genuine concerns, the use of the words never and they will think that.. are examples of thinking that are not based in evidence. It may be that the traffic will clear and you will get there on time. 

The person concerned might not think you are lazy, they might in fact empathise with your journey and be very understanding. 

The use of this language is very natural and common, yet if you can start to challenge it you will find your worry (and indeed your stress levels) will lessen in those situations.

I used to have these thoughts myself if I was stuck in a traffic jam or on public transport. I would often arrive either on time, or maybe slightly late, in a complete state of upset and panic because of the worry I had caused myself about arriving late, or people thinking I was lazy. However, since learning to challenge my thinking, I am able to look at the evidence and be more balanced.

So for example I might say to myself that I might be late, but I could phone ahead and warn someone with an estimate of when I hope to arrive. 

I also say to myself that the situation could not be helped and that even if someone did think I was lazy, that is up to them and I knew the truth of what had happened. I now find I arrive much calmer and able to carry out the rest of the day without too much stress!

5. Take Action

Often when we worry we are distracted by the problem at hand without actually asking ourselves if there is anything we can do about it. If you are finding yourself worrying, during your worry time you can complete the following exercise (use a pen and paper preferably):

· State your worry as comprehensively as you can

· Ask yourself if there is anything you can do about your worry.

· If yes, list the action that you can take (see my problem solving email for more tips on this)

· Start taking the action

· If no, then start to accept the uncertainty and challenge the thoughts you are having.

· You can also do some visualising to help you shrink the worry. To do this you need to visualise the worry you are having as a massive big picture in your mind. Gradually start shrinking the picture down and down and down until you can get it as small as you possibly can. You can repeat this exercise every day until you can imagine that worry as a small speck of dust you can just blow away.

Now admittedly, I was born a worrier, and I come from a long line of worriers. However, I have managed, through use of various techniques, some of which I have shared with you, to manage my habit of unnecessary worry and live a happier life.

Until next time..

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