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The Worry Box Technique

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"When we develop the belief that we can handle whatever problems life offers us, we have less need to worry."

What is Worry?

Worry is not about the present moment. Instead, worry focuses on the past or the future. Worry catastrophizes about imagined possibilities. It's lying awake at might thinking “What if?” In fact, worry is one of the primary causes of insomnia.

Worry also can be about past events, although it is still about future outcomes. For instance, if a person is worried about not doing a job well enough, he or she is really worried about a future consequence of that behavior. When we dwell on past mistakes or events, it is usually because we are blaming ourselves or we are fearful that others will blame us.

Problems Caused by Worry

1) Insomnia. Insomnia is a common problem due to excessive worrying. When many people lie down to sleep they begin to think of problems that bother them or review concerns about what they need to do the next day.

However, to fall asleep and to obtain good rest, we need to be relaxed. The more we worry, the more our body tenses and our breathing rate increases. As a result, we have difficulty falling asleep.

An additional problem that frequently occurs in these situations, is worry about not being able to sleep. As a result, the individual creates what they are worried about: the more worry, the less sleep.

2) Avoidance. Many people who worry about possible negative outcomes will tend to avoid situations. For example, a person worried about failing a college class may not even enroll in the class. Or a man who is worried that a woman he likes will turn him down if he asks her on a date doesn't even bother asking.

When people worry, they imagine the worst possible outcome. A consequence of dwelling on negative possibilities is the increased belief in the probability of negative outcomes. As a result, people miss out on opportunities due to the worry and the avoidance.

3) Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person creates the outcome that he/she believes will occur. Although this can occur for both negative and positive thinking, we are concerned about the negative thinking for this article.

For example, a woman may be convinced that if she goes to a party no one will talk to her. The thought causes her to send negative non-verbal signals to others that may actually cause others to avoid her. Such signals can include not looking at others, having a negative expression, and not approaching others. Thus, this person creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and becomes further convinced of her original belief. “See, I tried but no one talked to me.”

4) Pain. Worry can literally lead to physical pain. The cause is due to the increased muscular tension caused by worry. The most common kind of pain may be headaches but a variety of painful conditions can result from worry.

5) Relationship Conflicts. Worry can frequently create problems in relationships. Not only can the negativity be frustrating for others, but the worrier may also try to control others to prevent the outcomes he/she is worried about. Others may even avoid the worrier.

For example, once when I was purchasing clothes at a department store, the cashier was extremely negative and expressed numerous catastrophic concerns during our short interaction. I found it very unpleasant. The next time I went shopping, I consciously avoided going to her counter.

Coping with Worry

Thus, due to the impact that worry can have on our lives, it is critical to learn methods to reduce worry. The two primary methods of controlling worry are learning relaxation methods and changing our thinking.

Relaxation methods reduce the tension in our bodies. It is very difficult to be relaxed and worried at the same time. Our brain interprets the relaxed state of the body as meaning there is nothing to worry about. As a result, we are less likely to dwell on the negative thoughts.

Another method that can be relaxing but also helps with thinking is mindfulness. Developing mindfulness is learning to be more present in the moment of our experience rather than be concerned about past or future events.

The cognitive method of coping with worry is learning to change the underlying irrational thinking. The most common type of thinking related to worry is fixed desire which is the belief that we must have life a certain way so we can be happy. The problem with this thinking is that life frequently doesn't occur in the way we think it should so we are more likely to be unhappy and worried.

The Worry Box Technique

A method to help you cognitively sort through your worries is the worry box technique which helps you evaluate your worries and then mentally put them away by using coping statements. To sort through the worries you first determine if they are important and controllable or uncontrollable. Then you can mentally imagine a box to lock away your worries (listen to Worry Box audio) or you can even write them down and put them in a physical box.

1) Is the Worry Important? Too often, people expend tremendous energy on unimportant worries. To determine if something is important, examine the worry. Ask yourself: Will this affect my life in any significant way? Is it likely to occur?

If your answer is “no” to these questions, then the worry is unimportant. You are worrying about something that probably won't occur, or if it does, won't have much impact in your life.

If you determine that the worry is unimportant, you can eliminate the worry by reminding yourself that it is unimportant and not worth your time even thinking about it.

For example, one time I had called someone by the wrong name and was worried about making that mistake and what the person might be thinking/feeling. Finally, I told myself, “If she is thinking about this as long as you are, then she has more of a problem than you do.” In other words, it really wasn't something to worry about.

2) Is the Worry Controllable? If the worry is important, you then need to determine if the worry is controllable. If it is, the process of coping with it is fairly straight-forward. First, identify the steps you need to take to control the situation. Then, you begin to take the necessary steps. Write the steps down so that if you start worrying, you can remind yourself that you have a plan that you are following. “I just need to focus on the step I can work on now. The outcome will be based on my work now.”

The most difficult situation is a worry that is important, but not controllable. However, be sure to fully examine the worry before you determine that it is uncontrollable. Sometimes aspects of the worry may be controllable. And if you focus on those controllable aspects, the outcome of the situation may change.

You may need to be creative in how you approach the situation. Or, sometimes a situation may be controllable if you make certain changes but don't want to due to the difficulty of the change. For example, a person might be worried about the health consequences of having diabetes but doesn't make the necessary changes to improve his/her health.

3) What If It Really Is Important, But Uncontrollable? The only thing we can do about an uncontrollable situation is to change our thinking to cope with the situation. Often, this may have to do with our philosophy of life.

For instance, when I'm faced with a difficult situation, I try to remind myself that the worst moments of my life contained the seeds for the best moments of my life. In other words, I know that if certain events that I identified as “bad” at the time had not occurred, certain other events that I have identified as “good” wouldn't have occurred either.

I don't think any of us have the “big” perspective of how everything is supposed to fit together. We only have what we think it “should” be which is usually related to us not wanting to suffer. However, suffering is part of life. We can't escape it. But we can determine how we will handle it.

Some people do this through their spiritual beliefs. Some people do this through their connection with others. Some people do this through letting go of the demand on life and learning to live mindfully in the present.

However it is done, it involves our thinking about ourselves and our philosophy of life. I've heard people use coping statements such as “God doesn't give me more than I can handle” or “This is a life lesson that can provide me with direction.”

What Does this Have to Do with Worry?

When we develop the belief that we can handle whatever problems life offers us, we have less need to worry. Worry occurs due to the demand that everything “should” be okay. When we believe that we can cope with problems, we don't need to dwell on the “what if's?” Those concerns become unimportant.

The more we can believe that all life experience is worthwhile we don't need to seek only positive experiences and avoid negative ones. Too often, the avoidance of what we classify as “bad” experiences can prevent opportunities and limit our lives.

If you talk to successful people, they often don't even classify events into “bad” or “good” because every experience can contribute to the achievement of their goals. They are willing to take risks even if it involves unpleasantness. They can tolerate adversity and grow stronger as a result.

Changing your philosophy of life can help control worry. However, this may be particularly difficult for individuals who have anxiety or depressive disorders and may require professional assistance.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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