"I just can't shut off my brain. I worry so much I can't pay attention to what I'm doing." I hear comments like this in my therapy office on a daily basis. Whether you're constantly worried about money or you just can't stop imagining worst-case scenarios, anxiety can be a major problem.
Ruminating about the past and worrying about the future makes it impossible to stay in the present moment. Consequently, worrying will impair your performance and affect almost everything you do.
It can also take a major toll on your relationships. If you're distracted all the time or you introduce "what if..." questions into your conversations because you're predicting terrible outcomes, those around you may grow weary.
The good news is, there's a simple strategy that can help you contain your worrying. It sounds counterintuitive, but it really works.
Schedule Time to Worry
Most of the worriers who enter my therapy office are hoping for a quick solution. I don't blame them--worrying takes a toll on your well-being. But there isn't a magic trick or a special pill that instantly cures worrying.
However, there are several cognitive behavioral strategies that can reduce worrying. And one of the most effective solutions is to schedule time to worry.
That means setting aside 30 minutes each day to worry. Mark it in your calendar or add it to your schedule. Make it consistent if you can, like "I'll worry from 7 to 7:30 p.m. every night."
Then, whenever you catch yourself worrying outside of that time frame, remind yourself it's not time to worry and that you'll have plenty of time to think about those worries during your scheduled time.
Once you arrive at your scheduled worry time, worry all you want. Sit and think about your worries or write them down--whichever you prefer.
Then, after 30 minutes have passed, tell yourself it's time to get back to your everyday life. With practice, it'll help you contain your worries to just 30 minutes a day.
Why It Works
Several studies have found scheduling time to worry is an effective way to reduce worry. And most studies have found people experience relief in about two weeks.
A study performed by researchers at Penn State separated participants into two groups. One group was told to schedule time to worry and the other group was told to continue worrying as usual.
The individuals who scheduled time to worry experienced a significant decrease in anxiety, compared to the control group.
Additionally, those individuals who scheduled time to worry also slept better (insomnia is often linked with anxiety).
So why does this work? One reason is that worrying has no limits. You could worry about the same things over and over again forever. Or you could find endless things to worry about.
Scheduling time to worry contains your worrisome thoughts to just 30 minutes. So if you're used to worrying half of your waking hours, you'll get a lot of time back.
Limiting your time to worry can also help you make your worrying time productive. Rather than ruminating (which involves dwelling on the problem), you'll be more likely to look for a solution when you know there's a clear time limit to how much time you can spend thinking about an issue.
Tips for Getting Started
Here are the quick and simple strategies for reducing the amount of time and energy you devote to your worries:
- Pick a 30-minute time slot to worry and put it in your schedule every day.
- Keep your worry time and place as consistent as possible and don't schedule it too close to bedtime.
- Catch yourself worrying outside your allotted time and remind yourself that you'll worry later. (Write down your worry right away if you're worried you're going to forget about it).
- When you reach your worry time, set a timer for 30 minutes.
- Sit and think or write your worries in a notebook, whichever you prefer.
- Keep practicing and you'll find that warding off your worries gets easier over time.
Schedule time to worry for two weeks and you'll likely notice that you're feeling better and sleeping better because your worrisome thoughts will no longer drain your mental strength all day long.
If your anxiety is serious, however, it's important to see a trained a mental health professional. Anxiety disorders are treatable and, without help, they can grow worse over time.