Worries are a part of everyday life, but dedicating time each day to mull them over can help calm your mind, says Claire Coleman
How much of your day do you spend distracted from the task in hand because you’re worrying about something else? You might be chatting to a friend, but preoccupied about an issue that cropped up at work. Or perhaps your worries really do keep you awake at night. You’re closing your eyes to go to sleep, but your brain has other ideas. Before you know it, you’re worrying about everything, from that weird skin thing you meant to ask your doctor about and whether you accidentally offended your colleague with a flippant comment, to if you have enough money for this month’s mortgage payment or rent, and what you personally can do to help climate change.
This is where scheduling in worry time can help. Because while not inevitable, it’s reassuring to know that worrying is quite normal. And reflecting can help us work out how to do something better, as well as force us to confront problems and solve them.
"However, worrying about the past is what happens when reflection goes wrong," says Dr Naomi Murphy, a clinical psychologist. "Humans are meant to learn from their mistakes, so reflection is purposeful thinking that allows us to learn from the past and do better in the future. But constantly replaying something we feel bad about isn’t reflection, it’s worry, which is less helpful."
You can thank your adult brain for worrying about the future. "Our frontal cortex helps us imagine and plan things that aren’t happening in the moment in a way that children simply can’t do," says Navit Schechter, a cognitive behavioural therapist. "While that sort of mental rehearsal can be helpful, it can lead to worrying about things that may not happen."
In fact, a study published in the journal Behavior Therapy asked a group of people to note down their worries and track them for a month. The upshot? 91.4% of what they worried about never actually transpired. This doesn’t mean your worries might never come true, but that there is something to be said for deciding that a certain block of time is your worry time. This way, you’re not letting worrying dominate every waking hour (and when you should be sleeping). "Make a note of your worries throughout the day on paper, and keep in a bowl or jar," suggests Navit. "The act of writing can be helpful at getting worries out of your mind. Assure yourself you can come back to them at your planned worry time."
Writing down your concerns can also be a way of stopping your brain going into overdrive the minute you lie down to sleep. Keep a pad and paper by your bed and if anything pops into your head, scribble it down to be dealt with later. (There’s also evidence that the physical transfer of ideas from our brain to paper has more of an impact than using a keyboard.) And you might need to experiment to find out when you should schedule your worry time. Dr Murphy suggests a morning session. "You’re mentally fresh and will find it easier to curtail your worrying," she says.
But Navit is a fan of an end of day, pre-dinner session that doesn’t allow you to dwell on things because you have to make dinner afterwards. And avoid doing it last thing at night as you may find it hard to switch off. "Dedicate 15-20 minutes to your planned worry time," says Navit. "Review all the worries you wrote down and take time to think about them. Many people find they are no longer bothered and don’t want to spend time thinking about them, because they realise they were transient thoughts, rather than anything they really need to concern themselves with."
Scheduling worry time might just feel like one more thing you have to fit into your day but if it ultimately means you stress less, well that’s just one less thing to worry about.
More ways to combat worrying
Shelley Bosworth is a business mindset coach and suggests we need to stop thinking of worrying in a negative light. "Worries are just thoughts," she explains. "So, rather than thinking of yourself as worrying about something, try to see it as giving yourself time to acknowledge the thoughts you are having and seeing where to go with them. That makes it a positive and puts you on the path to self-development."
A problem shared is a problem halved – and can give you a different perspective. "Otherwise, talk to yourself as if you were your own best friend," suggests Julie Leonard, a life coach. "What advice would you give them, how would you speak to them? Probably more kindly than to yourself."
Breathe through it
Practise coherent breathing, in and out through the nose for six counts each way. "This allows blood to wash over the brain, which helps it relax," says Dr Murphy. "When we breathe through our mouths or take more air in than we exhale, blood flows to our limbs, so our thinking can become impaired."
When you worried as a child, a parent might’ve reassured you with touch. Dr Murphy says this also works on yourself. "Try reassuring yourself out loud while patting your chest. Our ears and skin can’t easily tell the difference between what they experience from others and what they experience from ourselves."
"Worrying is often about trying to exert control," says Navit. "So, it’s possible to stop worrying about the things you can’t control, and simply focus on problem-solving the things you can."
When it's more then just worrying... If you’re still preoccupied with worries, it might be something you can’t manage on your own. "It may have become unhealthy if you are worrying about 'anything and everything' and if it’s causing anxiety," says Navit. To seek professional help, speak to your GP or visit the Boots Mental Health Service.