Many of us, myself included, can be plagued by worry. It can be all consuming and rob us of joy and full living. So, my first series of blogs are going to center around worry and how to “worry well.” I say “worry well” because so often you hear people say “just don’t worry about that” or “just put that out of your mind” and though that would be nice if it were that easy, it’s not.
Part of why it is so difficult to “just stop worrying” is that worrying can be useful. Many worriers feel that worrying helps them prepare, plan, not be surprised, get motivated. This is true for some worry. For instance if I am worried whether I am going to get to the airport on time I will make sure I have enough gas, a reliable ride, leave with enough time. These are responsible actions – worrying in this case helped me to take action in a constructive way. This is what we call PRODUCTIVE worry.
Productive worry, according to Robert Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure, is worry that leads to productive action that you can take right now; it helps get problems solved. Unproductive worry, on the other hand, does not lead to any productive action but only leads you down a path of endless “what-ifs” that can’t be answered and only lead to more worry.
Two questions you can ask yourself when trying to distinguish whether your worry is a productive worry or an unproductive worry are:
- 1. Would a reasonable person worry about this?
- 2. Is there an action step you can take TODAY (or very soon) to help with your worry?
If the answer to both of these questions is YES then this is a PRODUCTIVE worry. Recognizing a worry as productive or unproductive can help you figure out how to best handle your worry. If you determine that your worry is productive, think about what ACTION STEP you can take today (or very soon) and act on it.
A couple examples of PRODUCTIVE worry include:
Imagine if you are worried whether your headaches mean that you have a brain tumor. Would a reasonable person worry about this – I’m going to be lenient and say yes. Is there an action step you can take today to help with this worry? Yes. You can call your doctor and schedule an appointment to share your concerns. So do that. It will help relieve some of your anxiety as you take practical steps to care for your worry. The alternative to identifying your worry as productive and taking action on it is dwelling on this worry endlessly without taking action. This often leads to a lot of “jumping to conclusions” or “predicting the future” as you start to treat your negative thought as true.
Another example might be worrying about whether your friend is mad at you because she seemed distant from you at a party last night. Once again you can go through the questions and determine whether this is a productive or unproductive worry. I would say this is productive – and the action that can be taken is to call your friend and ask her in a sincere and kind way. The alternative in this situation is once again to jump to conclusions, to stew and dwell, perhaps be defensive or stand off-ish with your friend because you are treating your negative thought as true without taking action to find out the truth.
In my next blogs I will explore more about UNPRODUCTIVE worry- the worry that creates so much undue anguish, fear and stress. I will explore how we get “sidetracked into unproductive worry” as Robert Leahy calls it and what we can do about it.
My hope for you and for me in this new year is that we can learn to put worry in its proper place so that it can be helpful and not harmful to us and we can live with a lot more joy and peace.
Happy New Year everyone.