Feeling worried? There's something you can do about it. Mental Health Counselor Kailey Spina Horan, PhD, has devised a simple exercise that can help you manage your worries and restore at least some of your sense of calm. It takes less than five minutes, and all you need is some paper and a pen.
There's a lot to be anxious about these days. More than 5.5 million Americans have contracted Covid-19. Unemployment is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. An untold number of businesses, including venerable names like Lord + Taylor and Brooks Brothers, have been pushed into bankruptcy. You may be worried about the future of your own business as well. On top of that, the strain of maintaining social distancing and spending most of your time at home with your family, and perhaps your school-age children, may be making you feel rattled.
I myself find, paradoxically, that the less I have to worry about, the more worrying I do. After my husband had a heart attack almost three years ago, my worrying was singularly focused on the state of his health and my fear of losing him. I missed an important work deadline -- which would normally have sent me into a panic -- and it didn't bother me at all.
When not faced with an immediate threat, I find I worry as much or more, but about a wider array of things. Disappointing clients. What would happen to my husband and I if I were unable to work. The West Coast wildfires, which are dreadful but hundreds of miles away from me. The major earthquake for which our region is overdue. And if all of that isn't enough, whenever I stay up too late at night or have to get up really early in the morning, I lie awake and worry about not getting enough sleep.
But while making plans for how to deal with challenges in your business or your home life is constructive, worrying will only drain your energy and damage your emotional and physical health. Horan's method for calming those worries, adapted from cognitive behavioral therapy, is brilliant in its simplicity and surprisingly effective. She explains it fully in a post at Psychology Today. Here are the basics.
1. Figure out what started your worrying.
Worry always starts with a thought that Horan calls a "trigger." This could be something like, "What if someone in my family gets sick?" "What if I lose my job?" Or even, "What if I have a panic attack?" Identify the first thought that made you begin worrying. Write it down.
2. Rate your worry on a scale of 1 to 100.
If 1 is a slight concern and 100 is jumping out of your skin, where does your current level of worry fall? Write down that number.
3. Think about all the reasons there are to worry.
What's the absolute worst that could happen if what you're worrying about came true? Play out this unpleasant scenario in your imagination. (Maybe you've been doing this already.) Whatever it is, write it down.
Now lay out all the evidence for why you're right to worry, all the facts that support your most dire view of the future. Horan says she realizes that this might seem like a bad idea -- after all, you're trying to worry less, not more. "Bear with me," she writes. "This will give you the opportunity to step back and take inventory of just how true and realistic this worry is." Write this evidence down.
4. Now consider the reasons not to worry.
"Get out your mental magnifying glass and start inspecting." Horan writes. "Just as a detective would look for facts and not opinions, we need to do the same."
Has whatever you're worried about happened before? How often? If it happened before, were you able to deal with it? How did you do that?
Now imagine a good friend came to you and confided this worry. How would you respond? Would you say that your friend was right to be anxious, or would you reassure your friend and say that whatever it was most likely wouldn't happen and that he or she would be able to cope if it did? Perhaps you would suggest a few practical things your friend could do to prepare in case the bad event did come true. Write down your reasons not to worry, and what you would say to your worried friend.
5. Re-rate your worry.
Now, consider again: How worried are you on a scale of 1 to 100? The fact that you took a few minutes to write your worries down will likely have lowered that score. If it has, then great! You now have a tool that you can use again in the future when you find yourself gripped by worry.
What if it didn't work for you? Whatever you do, don't add that to your list of things to worry about, Horan advises. Instead, try again, but this time recruit a close friend or loved one to go through the exercise with you. "Sometimes we're so entrenched in worry, it's hard to think of an alternative possibility," she writes. Getting the opinion of someone you respect may help you get a better perspective.
Psychological research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy exercises like this one can reduce worrying for most people. So if this particular approach didn't work for you, keep trying other ones. The fact is, we don't need to let our worries grow so large that they control us. We can do something to cut them down to size. For me, just knowing that's true makes life seem a lot less worrisome. How about you?