Worry as a process

Your process for any task is your series of steps to achieve your end. Your process for brushing your teeth or cleaning your kitchen may seem to you like “that’s just how you do it,” but if you surveyed the next 10 people you encounter it is very likely that their process for those tasks are not as similar as you were expecting.

For worriers, the mental process of worrying might otherwise be described as thinking. Where does your worry end and your thinking start?

To sort this one out, first off, bring attention to and get control over any functional worry that you experience. Read more about worry that functions as an emotional suppressant here.

We’ll also discuss mental compulsions, rumination, and post-event processing over the next several weeks. These are triggered thinking patterns. There are external circumstances or internal thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make these responses more likely in your thinking. To overcome mental compulsions, rumination, and post-event processing, observe what triggers it, what keeps you fused to the content when it arrives, and what you feel. We can work together to challenge the beliefs that keep you fused to the content and to stay present to the feelings. You’ll need to be ready for trigger, ready to get distance when the fused thoughts show up, ready to show compassion to your feelings, and ready to bring yourself back to the present moment.

Finally, let’s sort through what maintains the rest of your worrying. This part is some combination of habit and belief in the utility of worry.

I’ve organized the categories of repetitive negative thinking into types so that I can also organize interventions that will be most helpful for each type. Refer back to my previous post for a review of the dimensions.

Type 2 – Worry as a process

  • Ego-orientation: Ego-syntonic, meaning that worries seem reasonable to worrier.
  • Time orientation: Past and future.
  • Content: Can be anything.
  • Beliefs that maintain it: See the list below.
  • The function that maintains it: It can be a habit of thinking. The beliefs listed below also maintain it. The workable functions below maintain it, despite the unworkable functions.

Possible beliefs:

  1. Worry reduces painful emotions. (This is functional worry.)
  2. Worry increases my self-esteem, by making me feel in control.
  3. Worry prevents catastrophe, because I have control over what I worry about.
  4. Worry helps me solve problems.
  5. Worry motivates me, because it makes me aware of everything that could go wrong.

Workable functions:

  1. Short-term reduction in painful emotions.
  2. Short-term reduction in uncertainty.
  3. Short-term increase in self-esteem.
  4. Short-term increase in self-efficacy.

Unworkable functions:

  1. Long-term increase in painful emotions.
  2. Long-term increase in sensitivity to uncertainty.
  3. Long-term reduction in self-esteem.
  4. Long-term reduction in self-efficacy.
  5. Long-term narrowing of options.

To break the habit, you have to work at it and you also have to have compassion on yourself during the process. If your teeth-brushing process did not involve flossing and your dentist told you to floss, would you think, “Well, that’s your opinion…” or “I’m just a bad person for not having this step in my routine?” I hope not. The more helpful response would be, “That seems like it would be helpful, and it will be challenging to change this habit. But, I care about my health, so I’m going to try. What can I do to help myself be most likely to change this habit?”

Try to think about your mind and your mental habits this way too. There is nothing inherently wrong with you if your mind happens to worry a lot. But, it is a habit that causes a lot of suffering and sensitizes you to other suffering-inducing response mechanisms, like avoidance and rumination. The habit or process of worrying can also just make life feel more urgent, less safe, and more stressful than it needs to be.

Worry can occur when you have the feeling of uncertainty about an unanswerable question and you try to make the uncertainty dissipate by answering the question. Worry is productive when the question is answerable and the attempts to answer it result in problem-solving. Worry is not productive when the question is unanswerable and the attempts to answer it creates more questions plus worry about worry (that is, “what if I can’t stop worrying?”). Read more about productive and unproductive worry here.

When you’re ready to commit to breaking the habit of worry:

1. Start with scheduled worry time and observes in your experience over 5-7 days.

2. Identify the beliefs you have about worry and the workable vs. unworkable suctions it has in your life.

3. Once you are tracking your worries, differentiate between answerable and unanswerable questions, in order to turn unproductive worry into productive worry.

4. Take action on answerable questions that have solutions.

5. In everyday life, notice worries as they arrive and redirect your attention back to the present moment.