Are you struggling to stay focused on a task or a conversation? Perhaps your mind drifts into worry when you are with someone you love, like your children, your spouse or a good friend. Even though you want to be in the moment, you are present in body only. Your mind is elsewhere, feeding on fear and anxiety.
Psychologists advise that worrying is an attempt at solving the problem, and that chronic worrying, which typically involves thinking about what-ifs and worst-case scenarios can be overwhelming. This hinders problem-solving and can be paralyzing, which perpetuates the cycle of worry.
Worrying occurs when the mind is unable to find the solution (e.g. for a problem that we have no control over), or the mind causes us to believe that we cannot take appropriate action or that the proposed solution will not work. Worrying often involves negative bias and thinking the worst. It traps us in a cycle of repetitive thinking that is unproductive and energy sapping.
It is dangerous because it attacks our sense of security – which is the most basic human need next to food and water. Furthermore, chronic worry actually blocks our mind from being able to find solutions, and it can weaken our immune system through the stress response and make us sick.
When I find that I am worrying about something and it is distracting me from the things I want to be doing or should be doing, I know it's time to dig into my toolbox. One of the best tools I have found for dealing with worrisome thoughts is to schedule time to worry.
Scheduling Worry Time
Telling ourselves not to worry simply doesn’t work. In fact, it does the opposite. It’s just like with anything that we are tempted with. If I go on a diet, I think about food all the time. If I decide to quit smoking, I think about smoking all the time. We must give ourselves tools and techniques to ensure our success. Yes, even with worry.
Scheduling time to worry is a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) tool that is proven to reduce anxiety. It only takes about 15 to 20 minutes each day. Here are some simple tips on how to get started.
Choose a time each day for one week when your energy is good to worry for about 15 to 20 minutes
If you use a calendar, block that time. Do not choose to worry when you are at the end of your day or nearing bedtime, because your energy and resilience will be lower. Also, you do not want to be thinking about your worries before sleep. You need time to relax your mind to prepare for sleep.
Write down a 3 or 4 simple reinforcing personal instructions that will help you to control your mind both outside of your worry time and during your worry time
For example, outside of your worry time you might say, “I will think about that at my worry time” or “I choose not to worry right now – I choose to focus on….". To start your worry time, you might say, “It’s ok to worry now”.
Remind yourself that you don't need to think about all your worries during that time. You might say, “I don’t need to think about all my worries right now” or “I will focus on my other worries during my next worry time”.
To end your worry time, your instruction might be something like, “This worry time is over – I will worry during my next worry time. I give my mind permission to focus on other important things now.”
During your worry time, write down the worries that are troubling you
Don’t pressure yourself to solve them during that time. If you do start thinking about how to resolve it that’s ok. If you aren’t finished the list, give your mind permission to continue the list during the next worry time. Even if all you do during that time is to write down your worries, there is proven therapeutic value in writing them down.
Between your worry time, use your personal instructions to keep you focused
When you are between worry times, your mind may drift into the worrisome thoughts, especially if it is idle or if there is a trigger. Use your personal instructions and consciously refocus your mind on what you are doing. This is especially important if you are doing a task that involves a hazard, such as driving, using a knife or a tool, operating machinery or equipment, etc. Don’t be hard on yourself. It is difficult at first, and you are human. You will get better at it with practice.
At the end of the week, during your last worry time, review what you wrote down during the week and look for any pattern, trends, repetition, changes, etc. Reflect on it. While it is common to find a “top ten” list that get played out over and over again, you don’t have to. Do try to identify what the top three are.
The key is consistency and practice. After doing this for one week, do it again for the next week. It becomes easier to stick to the things you really want to be doing when you take control of worrisome thoughts.
For me, the real benefit of this practice has been that I am more present and focused when I am with my loved ones, and more able to enjoy my life, no matter what challenges I am facing. I would love to hear about how it helps you.