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Becoming a Smart Worrier

By Graham Davey, PhD, author of The Catastrophic Worrier

Worrying is something we all do. It’s arguably one of the most common human activities, and for good reason—our lives and the world in general offer challenges that we try to anticipate, manage, and, eventually, overcome. 

Now here’s the real challenge: Worrying should be a painless problem-solving process that prepares us to deal with these challenges. But for many of us—probably a majority of us—it all goes wrong. Instead of solving problems, our brain decides to focus on identifying even more potential problems that might result from the event that’s challenging us. Yet we still spend endless hours exacerbating the problem in a catastrophic way that simply generates more anxiety and distress. 

My late grandmother’s advice was: “Never worry worry till worry worries you.” If only it were that simple. So, how do you turn down the stress levels when worrying? There are arguably just three basic ways of dealing with the problems that worry you: solve them, neutralize them, or avoid them. 

Let’s start with the last one first. Avoidance is not a solution—it’ll come back to bite you. Much worrying is born out of anxiety, and anxiety lives off avoidance. Avoiding things you find threatening or challenging simply tells your brain you’re still anxious about them—and they’ll remain stressful problems for as long as you continue to avoid dealing with them, thinking about them, or interacting with them. So, while avoidance might take the heat off you for a while, it’s not going to make the problem, or your anxiety, go away. 

Instead of avoiding your worries, why not try to downgrade them a bit? Research has shown that as much as 95 percent of the things we worry about are never going to happen anyway—so why spend so much time trying to resolve them? 

It will be important to solve some of your worries—especially if they represent real-life challenges, such as losing a job or overcoming a relationship breakdown. But most of our worries tend to be hypothetical worries—things we think may happen, but in fact never do. So, we need to do a bit of honest risk assessment on our worries—which worries actually do need a solution, and which can we simply ignore or put on the back burner? Once you’ve identified the worries that are less important in your life, you can use some cognitive neutralizing strategies to downgrade them. 

Examples of neutralizing strategies include “downward comparison” in which you tell yourself things like, “other people are worse off than me,”, or “despite what’s happening, I’m really lucky in other ways.” Or you can try a “positive reappraisal” approach by emphasizing the positive features of your worrying, such as “I will come out of this experience better than I went in.” Neutralizing your worries is not the same as avoiding them, because neutralizing should ease the stress of the worry in a way that avoidance doesn’t. And regular use of neutralizing strategies has been shown to be associated with good psychological health. 

And finally, problem-solving. Wow—that’s a great attribute, but you really have to practice it. It’s like being a great basketball player—it takes a lot of work and effort to regularly hit the basket and feel relaxed enough to know you can do it when needed. But problem-solving is an achievable skill and can make you into a “smart” worrier rather than a “stressed” worrier. 

So, here’s some basic tips to help train your brain to deal with your worries and develop some problem-solving skills. 

Try to focus on the following steps: (1) Identify the problem—try to give yourself a very precise description of what your worry is and why it’s a problem; (2) Define your goal—ask yourself what you want to change or achieve right now in relation to your worry. Make this a realistic, concrete goal (not “I want to feel better”—that’s very difficult to define—feeling better will come with defining potential solutions); (3) Brainstorm some alternative solutions and write them down, think of how you’ve solved similar problems in the past and adapt those to your current worry; and (4) Think about ways you can implement your solutions—this is important because many worriers can think up perfectly good solutions to problems, but don’t feel they have the confidence to implement them. This is a significant part of the problem-solving process; consider the practicalities and make plans to implement your solutions. Do it, and don’t be put off! 

Remember, worries are problems that need to be solved, yet those who worry most are arguably the ones who solve the least. To break out of the cycle of simply defining problem after problem without solution, the worrier has to acquire some new ways of thinking. This involves developing a step-by-step problem-solving strategy that is practical, explicit, and leads to the effective implementation of solutions. Master these skills and you’re well on the way to becoming a “smart” worrier. 

Graham Davey, PhD, is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, UK; where his research interests are anxiety, worry, phobias, and the role of the disgust emotion in psychopathology. 

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