The difference between productive and unproductive worry

It is rare that the anxious person will go to a doctor and say, “My problem is that I’m afraid of my thoughts.” You are more likely to complain, “I’m always thinking… I can’t stop thinking… I can’t turn my mind off… I can’t relax… I can’t sleep… I can’t concentrate because of my worries.” This is called fear of thoughts, because of the process that got you to the point where you feel as though you can’t stop thinking. 

The more you resist what shows up in your mind, the more likely it will occur in your mind. Make sure you don’t think of a white bear right now. Are you able to do it? It is very likely that the image of a white bear popped in your mind, because of the way your mind works. When you tell your brain not to do something, it has to scan to see if the thing it should be avoiding is there. Thus, you’ll think of what you’re trying not to think of.

Worriers have of paradoxical relationship with their worries because a part of them wants to stop worrying, but another part of them thinks that worrying shows them what they care about, prevents future catastrophe, prepares them for the worse-case scenario, and keeps them from getting more anxious. Worriers want to end the incessant, intrusive flow of thoughts that pops up at unwanted times, but they frequently keep worry going on purpose, thinking that it is helpful. 

And, sometimes worry is helpful. If a catastrophic thought arrives in your mind feels important, in order to effectively act on it, you should ask yourself two questions: 

     1) Is this a problem I can solve? 

     2) Can I take action on it right now? 

If the answer is yes to both questions, stop reading! Go take action. 

If the answer is no to the first question, the distress you feel is uncertainty. It is not danger. There is nothing you can do to solve the problem. Your challenge now is to relate more effectively with uncertainty, not come up with more and more ways to try solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

If the answer is no to the second question, and the problem is bothering you, you should think through what your next step is and when you will act it. The next step might be delegating something to someone else or waiting to hear back from someone else, and just acknowledging this can provide relief. 

Sometimes people continue to worry even when they’ve made a plan. Oftentimes, this is because the feeling of uncertainty is very unpleasant, especially if the worry is very important (like, waiting to hear the results of medical tests). Labelling the uncertainty as uncertainty can disarm it a bit, and help it from gaining fuel via additional content (as in, “I have such a bad feeling about this that there must be something wrong!”). You should specifically remind yourself that the feeling of uncertainty is a feeling, not a fact or prediction. Put differently, how you feel about a potential catastrophe has no relationship to the likeliness of whether or not it will occur. Getting stuck in a feeling just causes you more suffering.

In the upcoming posts, we will go into great detail about uncertainty, the purposes worry serves, and how to manage it effectively.