Why is it that when we’re feeling anxious, we tend to worry so much, even though worrying tends to do nothing except make us feel even more anxious? One reason is that it’s easy to regard worrying as something that can be productive: that it either helps us deal with anxiety, or protects us from the thing we’re feeling anxious about.
If worrying actually did have these effects, it would be quite beneficial. But unfortunately, worrying usually only increases anxiety. So why do we continue to do it time and time again?
Worrying tends to feel a lot like problem solving. When we problem solve, we identify a problem, come up with some possible solutions, weigh their pros and cons, and then take some sort of action to resolve the problem. Problem solving is a very constructive, rational thought process to help us deal effectively with a problem at hand.
On the surface, worrying resembles problem solving. There is some “problem” that’s leading us to feel anxious, and we want to get rid of what’s causing the anxiety so we can be safe and feel better. So we worry about what’s making us anxious as a way of trying to solve our anxiety and make it go away.
The trouble arises when the things we’re worrying about are outside of our control—often they haven’t even happened yet. In these cases, problem solving doesn’t work because there is nothing yet to solve. If what we’re worrying about is outside of our control, there is little we can do about it, especially if what we’re worrying about something that exist only as a future possibility.
If you find yourself worrying about questions like “what if this happens?” or “what if that happens?”, then your worrying is unproductive: you’re worrying about something that has no solution yet, because it hasn’t even happened yet, so there’s nothing you can do about it. Except worry even more.
Worry is often triggered by difficulty tolerating uncertainty. Worrying might seem to be a good way to cope with uncertainty as it allows you to plan for things that might happen in the future. But worrying is different from planning, because when we worry, there is usually so much uncertainty involved that there really isn’t anything concrete to plan for.
It’s one thing to want to have a “plan B,” but when we worry, we end up trying to answer “What ifs?” for every possible outcome. No matter how many “What ifs?” we manage to figure out, there are always more. The number of things that can happen in the future is limitless, and so once we start worrying about the future, our worries also become limitless. Coming up with a plan B still doesn’t resolve all the uncertainty, so we try to come up with plans C-Z, and even those aren’t enough.
Just as with we noted with regards to negative thinking and racing thoughts, there are two ways to deal with worrying thoughts: reappriasing and reframing them in a different light; or letting go of them altogether. We’ll look at letting go of worries in another post. Below are some questions to ask yourself that can reduce your worrying and the anxiety you’re feeling by helping you reappraise and reframe the things you’re worrying about:
- What am I worrying will happen?
- What am I predicting will happen?
- Am I predicting the worst case scenario?
- How likely is it the worst case scenario will happen (rate from 0-100)?
- What evidence do I have that the worst-case scenario will come true?
- What evidence do I have that the worst-case scenario may not come true?
- If the worst case scenario did happen, what could I do to help me cope with it?
- What are some other possible scenarios? Some other outcomes? Some other ways the situation might turn out?
- What is the most likely thing to happen?
- If that were to happen, how could I cope?
- Have I ever been in a similar situation? How did that turn out? How was I able to cope then?
- What have I learned from similar situations in the past that can help me deal with what I’m going through now?
- What advice would I give to a friend or loved one who was in a similar situation?
- What advice might a friend or loved one give to me?
Asking questions such as these is a way of stepping back and getting some perspective about your worries. Even if you can’t let go of what’s on your mind and stop worrying about it altogether, these questions can help make the worrying less consuming and reduce the anxiety you are experiencing.