A lot of individuals find themselves worrying for all sorts of reasons. It may be during times of stress (like before a work deadline) or even during positive moments (like before a wedding or the arrival of a new baby). Often when worry is uncontrolled, it can lead to significant distress. But is worry helpful? Is it harmful?
It turns out that worry comes in all shapes and sizes. The size and shape of your worry may be helpful or harmful to you. A common experience of worry is feeling like you are thinking about the same situation or thought over and over again with no real resolution and in a way that makes you feel worse. It can feel like a paralyzing downward spiral, making it difficult to take any kind of action. This kind of worry is called “repetitive negative thinking.”
If repetitive negative thinking is a problem for you, it may be a sign that your worry is more harmful than helpful. In fact, repetitive negative thinking is widely studied in psychological research. This research shows that repetitive negative thinking is a common element of most anxiety and depressive disorders. What does this tell us? It suggests that if we can 1) increase our awareness of our repetitive negative thinking and then 2) limit our time in that thought pattern, then we can greatly reduce our distress.
How severe is your worry?
The first step to assessing our worry is to check how severe it is and how it’s impacting us. In cases of excessive worry, we can find ourselves feeling distracted, having trouble concentrating on tasks, having trouble sleeping, and experiencing low or irritable mood. This is a sign that worry is excessive and actually harmful. Sometimes, a small amount of worry can actually be productive. For example, if one is moderately worried about one’s health, that might lead to scheduling an appointment for an annual check-up. In contrast, if someone is excessively worried about their health (and is engaging in repetitive negative thinking), that might lead to avoiding the annual check-up.
Is worry leading you to avoid things?
The second step of assessing worry is checking whether worry is leading you to avoid anything you would otherwise do. Have you been avoiding talking to your spouse for a week because of a recent disagreement? Are you avoiding getting car maintenance because you’re worried you might lose your car? Are you avoiding going to a dental appointment for fear that you may have to get a root canal? If we find ourselves avoiding doing something out of fear, this is usually a sign that we are engaging in repetitive negative thinking.
Intervention: Take action or limit worrying
After assessing the extent of your worry and determining whether there is avoidance, you have a choice! If there is action to be taken (like scheduling a doctor’s appointment), then worry will often be greatly reduced by taking that action. However, if there is no problem to be solved, it will be helpful to limit your time spent worrying. This can be done by redirecting your attention every time you catch yourself in the loop of repetitive negative thinking. Since too little worry can lead to disinterest, and too much worry can lead to problematic anxiety, the key is to limit how much we worry.
Worry can be a motivating or a paralyzing factor in our daily functioning. We want to be really careful and strategic about how much attention we pay to worrying about things. In other words, we want to be economical in how much attention we pay to worry, how, when and for how long we choose to worry. By just increasing self-awareness around the shape and size of our worry, we can quickly intervene and either take action towards a solution or limit the time spent worrying.
Wishing you a worry-free day!
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