In this post, I’m going to share one of my favorite strategies for decreasing anxiety: setting a time to worry.
It may sound counterintuitive at first, but read all the way through before deciding if you’re willing to give it a chance. It can be challenging, but people who follow the guidelines tend to see positive results!
What inspired this approach?
A study in 2013 by two researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago studied this approach scientifically. They took a group of fifty-three people who scored high on an anxiety scale and assigned them to two groups. The first group was instructed to limit their worrying to thirty minutes of “worry time” per day. They were told to worry at the same time and place every day, for two weeks. The other group was told to worry however they usually did.
After two weeks, the researchers found that the group who used the “worry time” had reduced anxiety, worry, mood, and sleep problems.
Essentially, the researchers found that when people practiced saving up all their anxious thoughts and delaying them until a specific time and place, they felt much better!
Why does this strategy decrease worry?
There are probably several reasons why this works, but one of them is that worry is a learned behavior. It becomes a habit. In response to certain thoughts, feelings, or situations, we respond with anxious thoughts. We try to figure something out or go over and over it in our minds.
Part of what makes this strategy work is that we are breaking the association between triggers and the learned behavior of worry.
How to start
The first step to using this strategy is to identify where and when to have your scheduled time. I suggest setting a time not too close to when you go to bed. This could be during lunch, before or after dinner, or right when you get home from work or school. It works best if you can fit it into your regular routine. The research is based on thirty minutes of worrying, so that’s my suggestion for you. However, if fifteen minutes feels more reasonable to start, that’s okay.
Next we need to dedicate a specific place for your scheduled time.
Ideally, you’ll want to choose a place that you don’t spend a lot of time in, and definitely not a place you want to associate with relaxation (like your bed!). A dining room chair might be a good choice, or a spot on the couch where you don’t usually sit; even sitting at your desk could work.
Choosing a spot might not seem that important, but it is. This strategy is called “stimulus control.” A stimulus is a kind of trigger that can start a habit. The idea here is that when you engage in anxious thinking a lot, it becomes associated with stimuli in your environment. Then that environment can actually act as a reminder. In other words, sometimes what causes worry is a trigger in your environment, like checking your email or seeing that you need to load your dishwasher.
For example, let’s say you develop a habit of worrying every morning in the shower. Over time, getting in the shower is a stimulus that is going to trigger your anxious thinking. Maybe you worry in the car on the way home from work. Now your car is a trigger for anxious thinking, too! By limiting your anxious thinking to just one time of day and just one place, you are breaking the association between these triggers and worry.
Make this time a priority. Consider it an important appointment with yourself each day. Part of what will allow you to disengage from the worries is knowing you will come back to them later. If you skip worry time, you’ll be tempted to keep thinking about it!
Put it Into Practice
Ok, now let’s say you’ve decided to schedule your time from 5:15, when you get home, until 5:30. You’re going to sit at your dining room table. Starting tomorrow morning, when an anxious thought pops into your mind, write it down on a list. Then, remind yourself that you will give that thought plenty of attention and think it through later, during your worry time.
Gently remind yourself that now is not the time for anxious thinking. Be kind to yourself. Gently reorient to whatever is happening in the present moment. This is a good opportunity to use your mindfulness skills!
Shifting away from the anxious thought and back to the present moment will seem difficult at first. It will get easier with practice. Imagine that the disengaging from your worries is like a muscle. Each time you disengage from a worry, you’re flexing the muscle!
How is this different from just telling myself not to worry?
When we schedule worry time we’re delaying the worry, not trying not to worry or pushing the worry down. This is different from trying to suppress the worry. Pushing away will result in the “suppression effect.” The suppression effect happens when the more you try not to think about something, the more likely it is to actually pop into your mind.
For example, take thirty seconds and think about anything you like, except pink elephants. Okay, go ahead!
My guess is that you haven’t thought about pink elephants all day. However, as soon as you tried not to think about them, they popped up all over the place. Forcing yourself not to worry is going to cause the same rebound effect.
When we schedule worry time, we’re not telling ourselves that worry is pointless or that we should just stop. We’re acknowledging that there’s a tug to think about something that’s bothering us.
We are telling ourselves that we will spend time on it, just not right now. Now there are other things that need our attention (work, a meeting, spending time with friends and family, going for a run, etc.). This allows us to be present and to experience the moments of our lives instead of being distracted by worry.
Use a worry list
One strategy that goes nicely with worry time is to keep a worry list. When you first recognize that you’re thinking anxious thoughts, write it down on your list. You can keep a notepad by your bed if you worry while trying to sleep, or jot it down in your phone if worries come up when you’re getting ready for your day.
The method you use to keep your worry list isn’t important. What is important is being consistent and writing each thought down as soon as possible.
When your scheduled time comes up, sit down in your designated place and review your list. Worry as you usually do. Let the thoughts come and go.
When the time is up, move on to the next activity.
It can be helpful to schedule an engaging or distracting activity afterward to help shift your attention. Watch a show you really enjoy, read a compelling book, or talk to someone about their day.
Repeat these steps every day:
- When a worry comes into your mind, write it down on your list,
- Save the list and the worries for your worry time and place,
- When the time comes, move to your spot and worry, and then
- Move on.
I hope this strategy is helpful to you!
If you’d like help finding more strategies to worry less and live more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at email@example.com or through the contact form on our website to schedule your free consultation.