Many of us know that when worry is excessive it eats up an unreasonable amount of time, lowers our mood, and is generally a pain in the bum. So, we say, “I NEED TO STOP!” and sure, that sounds lovely. But before we talk about identifying unproductive worry, let’s talk about when worry is useful and why we do it in the first place.

Worry is protective

Worry is generally a reaction to a stimulus (thought, situation, or physical sensation) that incites fear. It’s a reaction that is designed to propel us toward action that will protect us from the feared outcome. Let’s think about humans 50,000 years ago, and imagine a community who were born without the ability to worry. This super-chill tribe would be finding a spot to camp for the night without a worry in the world, picking and eating every delicious red berry they saw, and staying calm and collected when they heard a rustle in the bushes.

Sounds like a lovely time! Unfortunately, though, they’d all be dead.

The reality of the natural world of our ancestors is that it was dangerous and they needed their threat response system to be primed to predict and react to danger. The ancestors that survived, and whose brains we have inherited, were good at noticing danger and reacting to it. Enter worry.

Productive vs unproductive worry

So while we can see that worry is a crucial part of our very clever threat response system which works hard to keep us safe (thank you, brain!), it’s also clear that in our modern world, many of our worries are not prompting helpful responses, but are instead eating up time and overstimulating our autonomic nervous system.

What’s in my control?

To tell whether worry is productive or not, try asking yourself: “What’s in my control?”

Not in my control

Other people’s thoughts feelings and behaviours? Not in our control. The past and the future? Not in our control. Our thoughts and feelings? This is tricky, but ask yourself if you could absolutely guarantee that you will not have a particular thought or feeling. You can't! Our automatic thoughts and feelings are NOT in our control.

We can, however, influence things outside of our control. For example, we can't control how someone feels toward us, but we can behave in a way that is likely to influence their feelings toward us in one direction or another. Similarly, we can't control the thoughts that appear in our mind, but we can change our response to them.

In my control

Our behaviour, which includes our thinking (not thoughts, but where we focus our attention) is in our control. And that's it!

If you’re worrying, ask yourself if you’re focusing on what’s outside of your control. Almost always, worries are. Try refocusing your mind on what’s in your control, i.e. how could I change my behaviour or the way I’m thinking to help alleviate this fear. Behaviour can help by making us proactive, whereas our thinking can often help by redirecting our mind away from unproductive worry.

Some examples of worries focusing on factors outside of your control:

Worrying about whether someone is upset with you

Refocus to what’s in my control:

  • Text them and let them know how you're feeling

  • Defer worry until you see them next

  • Redirect thinking to another task.

Worrying whether I left the stove on

Refocus to what’s in my control:

  • Drive home and check

  • Ask yourself how often you fixate on this versus how often you have actually left the stove on. If this is something you often worry about without evidence, try letting it go.

Worrying about my work presentation

Refocus to what’s in my control:

  • Practice presentation

  • Go over your plan

  • Take some deep breaths to calm yourself.

This is just one of many ways to deal with unproductive worry, but it can be a very effective way to snap yourself out of an exhausting, time-wasting psychological wormhole.

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Article written by: Kate McLisky

Image credit: Pixabay on Pexels

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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