The way we think has a huge influence on the way we live our lives. Many of us develop unhelpful thinking styles that cause us to experience negative and unwanted mood states and can impact on our mental health and wellbeing. By recognising our unhelpful thinking patterns, we can take steps to change them, and so improve the way we feel emotionally. Worrying is one pattern of unhelpful thinking that is strongly linked with anxiety.

What is Worry?

Worrying involves thinking about possible scenarios in the future in a way that causes you to feel nervous, apprentice or anxious. Most of us do this now and again. For example, we may worry ahead of an interview about the questions that will be asked, or how we may come across. In this case, the anxiety caused by thinking ahead to the event is proportionate to having to prove ourselves worthy of a job and motivates us to take actions to prepare well in order to succeed. We may research the company, prepare some examples to share that showcase your skills, and pick out an approximate outfit. Here, the worry and anxiety are helpful because they motivate helpful actions.

Worrying is unhelpful when we focus disproportionally and excessively on negative, and often extreme, outcomes. This often involves thinking in ‘what ifs’ about things that others wouldn’t necessarily pay much attention to. An example may be trying a new recipe and finding yourself thinking, ‘What if I burn the food and it causes a fire? What if I undercook the meat and give everyone food poisoning? What if they get sick, or die?’

The Effects of Worry

The thought of these scary outcomes understandably causes anxiety and fear. This emotional response can bring on physical symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sweating, light-headedness, and nausea. Not symptoms any of us want to be experiencing! The discomfort we experience from these symptoms and feelings then has an impact on our actions.

As a result of these frightening ‘what if’ scenarios you’ve been playing out in your head, you may avoid following through with trying the new recipe. Or if you go ahead, you may be extremely careful checking through the steps of recipe repeatedly, seeking a lot of reassurance and guidance from others, or find yourself cross-refencing information about the process.

When Worry is a Problem

Sometimes the term ‘worrying’ is used interchangeably with overthinking, pre-empting, preparing or planning. It is often therefore believed to be useful and helpful. As we’ve already covered, it can be helpful at times. But if you notice the following, this could be signs of an anxiety disorder:

· The worry is excessive and disproportionate to the trigger.
· You find yourself worrying about lots of things all the time
· You worry about the same few things obsessively.
· Worrying makes you feel anxious.
· Worrying affects your day-to-day life.
· Worrying prevents you from doing things you want or making decisions.
· You feel you can’t stop or control worrying.

Worry can become very repetitive. You may find yourself worrying about the same things over and over, a bit like having an annoying song or story replaying in you mind. Often, bedtime is the danger zone for worry. Just as we most want to unwind and relax and drift to sleep, we can find our mind races with negatives thoughts and concerns about the future and we find ourselves awake, struggling to switch off. We then end up in a negative cycle. When we don’t sleep well, this has a ripple effect on our mental health and wellbeing and so our vulnerability for anxiety and negative thinking can increase. We can then find ourselves worrying even more.

How to Manage Worry

When stuck in worry cycles, the best response is to try and bring your attention back to what you are doing at the time. However, this is often easier said than done! Particularly with bedtime worry. When the thing we are trying to do is sleep, focusing on the fact that we’re not managing to get to sleep can cause us to feel stressed and keep us awake even longer. In Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT), we set up a series of exercises over a few weeks to help you develop this skill.

Another way to manage worry is to try and flip your ‘what if’ thinking from negative to positive. So, with the above example, asking yourself ‘What if I cook this exceptionally, everyone loves the meal and we have a great time.’ This can help us recalibrate our thinking to find a more likely outcome. By shifting our focus from the worst to the best-case scenario, we can land on a happy medium outcome that is more probable. This might be that you make a few mistakes with the recipe but it’s ok overall, you have a good time and nothing terrible happens.

CBT for Worry and Anxiety

In CBT, we look at worry as a behaviour. If it is something that we are doing, then it is also something we can learn to stop doing. It can take time and practice but it is absolutely doable and can be lifechanging! By stopping the worry, we reduce the anxiety.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘that’s me!’ then you’re not alone and there is a lot that can be done to help you learn how take back control and break free from worry. To find out more about how, get in touch.