I really like this simple tool devised to help manage worries. It is used in psychiatry with people suffering acutely anxious, intrusive and obsessive thoughts, but it can apply equally well to any worries that occupy our minds too. You’ll know the ones – those that go around and around in a loop, don’t really change in content over time, and simply refuse to budge. Anxious thoughts breed physical symptoms too – so while we ‘think’ them, we may well begin to feel jittery, and at worse fly into full panic mode. This is our primal ‘fight or flight’ response (controlled by our oldest part of our brain), and our body succumbs when it thinks its under threat: anxious thoughts are, inevitably, threatening.
We worry away at things (‘Did I upset X? Will I pass the exam? Will the house get burgled?) partly because we are driven by our evolutionary wiring to believe that we will solve the worry, even though ‘rationally’ we know we can’t. So, worrying can offer some paradoxical relief as we can feel some control over something that is beyond our control. It provides a sense of ‘doing’ something to fix or solve or resolve. But we all know it doesn’t work – hence the deeply irritating ‘stop worrying’ phrase some kindly folk offer to us.
The idea with ‘worry times’ is to give yourself full permission to worry away at something, but only at appointed 10 minute sessions: recommended times vary – I’d never go more than 20 mins. Depending on how pernicious the worry, it may be one or two but no more than 3 times a day: so, say 9am-9.10am, again at 1pm-1.10pm and again at 6pm-6.10pm. When the worries pop up, which they will, you tell yourself you will worry about them later, at the appointed time. It may take lots of practice to get to the stage of being able to let go until your next worry time, and some find it helpful to write down the worry so as not to ‘forget’ to address it (unlikely, but worrying minds can be brilliantly persuasive).
When it comes to your allotted worry time, you are allowed to worry the living daylights out of yourself – you don’t have to reality check your worries, or tell yourself off for having them – but you must make sure you fill all the time allotted. If you run out of worries, start recycling them….and be sure to only have negative unhelpful thoughts, the ones that make you really uncomfortable. Either worry privately, in your head or out loud, or on paper with a pen, or type them. If you can find a willing friend or someone to help, worrying out loud to them can be effective too – their role is to keep you on task, worrying as best you can. So they’ll need to be primed not to soothe you, but to explore the worries as best as possible.
It may be a fairly unpleasant experience at first – but probably no worse than the worrying you are doing anyway. The idea is to do keep the practices up until you experience something else – less anxiety or frustration, or even, bingo! – a boredom. People also begin to feel something different entirely after a while – even pleasure. I’ve heard someone report back even an excitement over a dreaded ‘plane journey. A good few committed days of applying ‘worry times’ allotted to a fear of flying meant that t it became very difficult to worry for more than a few seconds, and it did, indeed bore her when she tried. In turn, this ushered in a new feeling of positivity, and the excitement that flowed from this: a virtuous cycle out of a vicious one.
Give the practice at least a week, 10 days ideally.