Seven questions to ask yourself to break free from worrying

What is worrying?

Worrying is when you think about things that might happen in the future. A little bit of worrying is OK if it leads to a solution you then act on. But what often happens is we worry repeatedly, going around in circles in our head without ever doing anything about it. Sometimes we don’t realise how much we do this or what impact it has on us.

How does it worrying feel?

Most people will tell you they feel anxious, frightened, down, helpless, ashamed, embarrassed or some other unpleasant emotion. I doubt you’ll find anyone who says they enjoy it!

So, given it feels bad, why do people do it so much?

Worrying is like a mental bad habit. We worry because, at some level, we believe it helps us. If we truly didn’t believe anything good would come of worrying, we simply wouldn’t do it. Or as soon as we realised we were doing it, we would immediately stop.

Why do people think worrying is helpful?

You can discover this by noticing when you are worrying and stopping to ask yourself what you are hoping to achieve. Here are a few common reasons people give:

Worrying helps me solve problems.
Worrying helps me avoid things I don’t want.
Worrying shows that I care.
If I didn’t worry that would make me a careless or heartless person.
Worrying helps me prepare for bad things happening.
Worrying makes me focus.
I can’t stop myself from worrying even if I want to.

Are these beliefs really true?

The short answer is: No. But saying it just like that is unlikely to convince most people to stop worrying. Doing so takes patient self-inquiry. There are various methods but all start from a recognition that worrying doesn’t feel good and therefore it’s worth questioning.

So what’s the alternative to worrying?

Again, there are various methods of breaking out of the habit of worrying. One popular way is to compare worrying side by side to a structured problem solving technique. Here’s an example of seven problem solving questions you can ask yourself to help you break free of worrying…

As soon as you notice you are worrying, ask yourself:

1. What specifically am I worrying about?

Take a step back and reflect on what you are actually worried about. Many people don’t recognise how scattered their worries are until they try to define them. That itself is a clue: If you can’t think clearly when you are worrying, how helpful is it likely to be?

2. Is this something I can actually do anything about?

You’ll be surprised how often you find yourself worrying about something completely imaginary, or that you can’t actually do anything about anyway. Again, that’s a clue: If you can’t do anything about something, what is the point of worrying about it?

3. If yes, what is it that I can do?

This is where we start to shift towards practical problem solving. Brain storm. Make a list. Again, be specific and make sure these are things that really can be done, even if they might take time, or you need help. Break big steps down into smaller steps wherever possible.

4. Is there anything that can be done, right now?

One of the fastest ways to offset worrying about something, is to take action based on the list of things you can do about it. Even small steps, like sending an email, or phoning someone can benefit your state of mind.

5. What can I schedule to do later?

If there are steps you can’t take now, but can later, schedule them. Make a note in your diary or planner of what you will do and when. Again, even small steps written down like that are effective in reducing worrying.

6. Now, think again, what remains?

Once you have done everything that can be done now, and scheduled everything else that can be done later, and acknowledged what you can´t do anything about, what is left? If something is still niggling you, try going through the previous steps again to see if you missed anything. At this point (or even before) many people realise there is no point worrying anymore.

7. What do I want to focus on instead of worrying?

Intentionally refocusing on something of your choice will often help to shake off any remaining worry, especially if you have thoroughly considered all the above steps. It also helps to remind yourself (as often as needed!) that you can make a choice about what to focus on, even if your mind seems to run away with itself when you forget that!

Try it out next time you find yourself worrying about something. What do you think? How does going through these seven steps compare to your normal habit of worrying? Is there anything you would add or change here? What works best for you?

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