Want to decrease the amount of time you spend worrying? Schedule “worry time.” It may sound counterintuitive, but employing this cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tool can help you develop control over the frequency and timing of your worry. Backed by research, this technique known as stimulus control training in the CBT world teaches you how to contain your worry to designated periods, thereby freeing up the mind for other important, interesting or fun activities.
Thinking vs. Worrying
I like to distinguish between ”thinking” and ”worrying.” Thinking is a good thing. It involves reflection and analysis that leads to greater clarity and purposeful action, when action is necessary.
Worrying, on the other hand, is essentially problem solving gone awry. What starts out as concern over an issue, eventually turns into preoccupation; that’s worry. Worrying is also a common go-to in times of uncertainty.
One difference between “thinking’ and “worrying” is that the latter tends to be colored by a negative bias. For example, catastrophizing – imagining the worst – is a hallmark sign of a worrying. Worrying also feels more repetitive and unproductive, in comparison to thinking.
Many chronic worriers believe they can’t control their thoughts. But, the fact is that you can learn to control how often and when you worry – through practice. Whatever we do as humans over and over again, we get better at. If we give in to our mind’s pull to worry, at random intervals throughout the day, then the ability to worry will grow stronger. Alternatively, if you limit the amount of time and energy you spend worrying, this habit will start to diminish in intensity and frequency.
In addition to (eventually) worrying less, scheduling worry time can help one limit the process to more convenient times. For example, it’s far better to spend time worrying during the day, then at night when you’re trying to fall asleep. And, it’s often better to spend time obsessing over something when you’re at home rather than at work when you need to be focused.
Changing a habit like chronic worrying likely requires a multi-pronged, systematic approach. Simply telling yourself to worry less doesn’t go far for those who worry a lot. Using the “Schedule Worry Time” tool is one way to start decreasing worry, but it’s probable that additional work will be needed to shift more entrenched worry patterns.
The “Schedule Worry Time” psychology tool steps:
Below is an outline of the steps involved in this exercise. This may feel strange and even silly to do, but try to not give in to those feelings and do it anyway.
1.) Schedule worry time each day for one week. Put it in your calendar. Start by setting aside 15-30 minutes during the morning or afternoon. That will be your worry time. It’s best not to schedule worry time right before you go to bed, for obvious reasons.
2.) During that 15-30 minute window, write down all of your worries that you can think of. Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve them during that window, but if your mind naturally goes there, that’s fine.
Writing the worrisome thoughts down can be therapeutic in and of itself, as it often lends perspective over what’s troubling, in a way that can be more powerful than internal reflection alone.
Remind yourself of your intentions at the start and end of each time period. For example, you might say to yourself: “This 15-30 minute block is for worry time, and I will do my best to not put attention on these worries outside of this time each day.”
3.) Between worry times: if you start to worry, tell yourself to let go of those thoughts until the next designated worry period. This will feel hard at first, and may require a lot of reinforcing self-talk (e.g., telling yourself over and over to let go of thinking about your worries until it’s the appropriate time).
Try not to worry about worrying outside of your worry time! You won’t be perfect with this exercise, nobody is. But, your intention and effort will make a difference.
4.) At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at what you wrote down over the course of that week. Do you notice any patterns? Any repeat worries? Any changes in the content of your worries? Reflect on this data. It’s common to find a “top ten” list of worries that get played out over and over again.
5.) After doing this for one week, consider trying it for another. As you practice this more, you’ll start to notice an increased ability to control when and where you worry; it’s akin to strengthening your muscle of thought control.
As mentioned previously, worry is essentially an attempt at some type of problem solving. It can also be a means of dealing with uncertainty – which is a daily part of life. Chronic worriers tend to get mired in “what if” thoughts – “what if this happens or doesn’t happen” – which can be paralyzing and overwhelming. If you identify a problem that you can take action to address, then take it. If not, tell yourself “I’m going to do my best to let go of this thought and put my attention on something else until it’s my scheduled worry time again.”
With regards to uncertainty, you can learn to develop more “comfort” with the unknown by not feeding worry and also by cultivating a stronger connection to your present experience (since worry is about the future). Mindfulness meditation practices are one good way to foster more presence and less of a future orientation. You can learn more about these practices here: What is Mindfulness?
You can learn more about the research supporting this tool here:
Stimulus control applications to the treatment of worry – Penn State University, Dep’t of Psychology
A preliminary investigation of stimulus control training for worry: effects on anxiety and insomnia – University of Illinois – Chicago, Affective Science and Physiology
Journal of Psychotherapy and Somatics Study – referenced on NBC News