Overcoming Worry
With Worry Appointments

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Overcoming worry is a difficult task, and it's made more difficult by such thoughts as "Stop worrying!", "Don't think about it!", or "Why do I keep worrying?".

These thoughts, if you take them seriously, are likely to get you into an argument with yourself which just sustains the worrying. They're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem.

Overcoming worry with methods such as thought stopping  and arguing with your thoughts is like "putting out fires with gasoline".

Worry Appointments are more likely to help you in overcoming worry. They're designed for those persistent, unwelcome worries which are not of any use to you. They're for chronic "what if?" worries which don't point out problems you need to solve, but simply nag and bother you.

Overcoming Worry will require a new approach

Let me clarify what I mean by worry. I don't mean planning, or problem solving, or any kind of thinking which produces a desired result or plan. I mean the unproductive and unpleasant repetition of "what if" thoughts which don't ever reach a conclusion or formulate a plan. If you have a history of struggling with these thoughts, overcoming worry will probably require a new approach, not simply repeating what hasn't worked in the past.

Worry Appointments

A worry appointment is time you set aside exclusively for worry. This idea may seem strange to you, because it runs counter to our usual instincts. But it's usually very helpful because, instead of "putting out fires with gasoline", we're going to "fight fire with fire."

During a Worry Appointment, devote your full attention and energy to worrying, and nothing else, for ten minutes. Don't engage in any other activity, like driving, showering, eating, cleaning, listening to the radio, riding on a train, etc. Spend the full ten minutes worrying about whatever items you usually worry about. Make a list of your worries ahead of time, so you have an agenda.

For ten minutes, you engage in pure worry. This means you don't try to solve problems, reassure yourself, minimize the problem, relax, or take any other positive steps with respect to the worry or the problems. You simply worry, which means reciting, repeatedly, lots of "what if...?" questions about unpleasant possibilities.

Schedule these times in advance, two a day, and write them into your planner. Pick times when you have privacy, and don't have to answer the phone or the doorbell, talk to others, look after the dog or the kids, and so on. I suggest you avoid the following times: first thing in the morning; last thing at night; right after meals.

And Do the Worry this way...

Do your worrying out loud, in front of a full length mirror.

This is the peculiar part, I know, but don't skip this step. It's important!

The advantage of doing the worrying this way is that it helps you be a better observer of your worry. Most worry is subliminal. It occurs when we're multi-tasking. We worry while driving; attending a lecture; showering; or doing some routine work that doesn't demand much attention. We rarely give worry our full attention. So it's easy for it to continue endlessly.

Imagine this. Think of a worry you experience frequently. It might be some exaggerated concern about health, money, family, work, or whatever.

Now imagine that, every day, every twenty minutes or so, a person taps you on the shoulder to warn you of some imagined peril. For instance, if I were worried about money, every 20 minutes I get tapped on the shoulder by a coworker who says "Dave, what if you run out of money, your family is put on the street, and you can't send your son to college?"

If it were someone else saying these things to you, you'd soon ignore what they were saying. And you'd probably take steps to get them out of your life as well.

But because worrying comes in the form of our own subliminal thoughts, it has more power to influence us. And, we all tend to assume that, if it's my thought, there must be something to it. We tend not to notice that we can think all kinds of nonsense, that thoughts are often only anxiety symptoms, nothing more.

When you say the worries out loud, you don't just say them, you hear them. When you worry in front of a mirror, you see yourself doing the worrying. You're not just worrying in the back of your mind. You're hearing, and watching, yourself as you worry. The worry is no longer subliminal, and that will probably help you get a better perspective on it.

The Benefit of Worry Appointments

The main benefit comes during the rest of the day, when you're not engaged in a worry appointment. When you find yourself worrying when you're "off worry duty", give yourself the following choice: I can either

a) take ten minutes now to worry very deliberately about this issue, or

b) postpone it to my next worry appointment.

The postponing can be very powerful. Many of my patients find that it enables them to sweep large portions of their day relatively clear of worry. However, it only works if you actually do the worry appointments as prescribed. If you try to postpone worries, knowing that you probably won't keep the worry appointments, the postponing probably won't work for you. So don't try to fool yourself!

This technique isn't for everyone, and it takes some commitment. If you don't want to really commit yourself to it right now, save it for another day, rather than doing it half heartedly now.

Looking for more help
with chronic worry?

Dr. Carbonell's new book, The Worry Trick, can help guide you to a life less concerned with worry.

For more help with worry, visit this site.

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© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on April 8, 2024