How To Make Worrying Actually Productive, From A Psychologist
"But I need to worry!" my client Rachel tells me. "If I don't worry, nothing ever gets solved, and something bad will happen."
The truth is, some of us like to worry. It is a comforting ritual because it gives us something to do. Like that old soft toy we hug, it's something we're so used to. To cut it away from our lives—even if everyone tells us we'd be so much better without worrying—can make everything feel adrift.
Who will I be without worrying? What will I do? What will life be like?
These are too big and existential. It's easier to do the thing we're great at—worrying.
And this is how we get addicted to worrying.
Instead, let me teach you a simple practice to transform your worrying time into something actually productive: planning time. Let's start at the top.
Why we like to worry
Here's the deal: Our beliefs about worrying make us likelier to worry more or less.
Many who enjoy the physical practice of worrying—calling it their daily meditation—tell me that they believe that worrying solves their problems. Ergo, worrying is helpful.
(Like two lawyers taking our thoughts to court, we soon break it down and the realization dawns: Worrying doesn't solve any problems. It is planning that does.)
For others, worrying helps them procrastinate because the task at hand feels way too emotionally overwhelming. On a deeper level, worrying may feel useful because it helps us to avoid physically reexperiencing trauma, and thus it may feel like a small price to pay.
But worrying comes with enough downsides that it's worth interrogating the urge to keep doing it.
The neuroscience of your worrying habit
How I like to describe worrying is, worrying is a mental cancer that metastasizes from something in one area of your life, to one that feels all-pervasive and permanent.
Fundamentally, when you enter the worrying spiral, your worries jump from concerns in one part of your life to bigger, fearful things in many parts of your life. Time enters its own time dilation field like those bubbles in sci-fi flicks, and three minutes very quickly morph into three hours. And add in the physical effects of all that anxiety— from migraines to palpitations to clammy hands—to the mental exhaustion, and your original problem hasn't been solved. Instead, it's been amplified.
And as these habitual grooves—from mindset to bodily sensations to behaviors we engage in—get stronger, the more entrenched we are in worrying. Some clients tell me they spend up to eight hours a day worrying.
And it shows in the frown lines on their face as they rest. Their posture. The speed at which their brains can shut down something positive or neutral, turning it into something threatening. That's not a good way to live this one precious life of yours, is it?
How to make worrying actually productive
Now, it's impossible to unwire your autopilot habit of worrying overnight. If you've got substantial anxiety passed in your genetics, or you started worrying at a young age watching your family and having experienced some unpleasant adverse experiences as a child, then that's many years of deep worrying to unwire.
Remember that before you judge yourself or want to curb the problem straightaway. Self-judgment only makes everything worse.
In my book This Is What Matters, I write about making a date with your worries every day—what I call "Worry Time."
Worry Time is a dedicated, pre-scheduled container of time when you sit down to go through all of your worries and then map out solutions. The solutions part here is key—because there is a big difference between worrying and planning. Worrying alone gobbles your time, and you feel worse after that. Planning transforms that worry into action.
Here are some things you can think about:
- How many hours do I worry for daily?
- How many hours would I like to cut that down to?
- Which time slots will I designate as Worry Time? Set alarms, block them out.
- Which areas of my home/office will be dedicated to Worry Time?
- When will I review this next?
This way, we keep the physical spaces cordoned off. And when the urge to worry pops up during the day, you can tell your brain you'll worry about that later during your designated Worry Time (maybe just jot a headline in your notes about the topic) so your brain is reassured.
This works way better than lying to yourself that you aren't worried or scolding yourself to just be positive.
One of my favorite success stories? A client who had been worrying for 60 years, who sat on the couch telling me he was only there because he'd been forced to by his medical team and felt completely helpless about his anxiety, slashed worry time from eight hours a day to a half-hour a day, in two weeks. And on his own accord, he spruced up his garden for the first time in decades.
What to do during Worry Time
Now that we have allowed your brain the soothing activity of worrying, let's use that mental energy to properly solve problems.
Step 1: Assess
Step 1 is to triage. In hospitals, this is how medical teams preliminarily assess what to do with each patient based on urgency and what's needed in terms of medical care. Your patients are your worries here. Triage questions would be:
- Is this solvable?
- Is this controllable?
- Is this relevant?
If your answer is no, then park them for your next Worry Time.
Step 2: Reset
Step 2 is to reset your brain. Because when worrying, your brain is operating in fear mode. Meaning, your primitive brain structure, known as the amygdala—which is only concerned with you surviving and not thriving—is in charge. Just like you don't knowingly take planes with a hijacker in them, you shouldn't be operating your brain when your fear center has hijacked you.
To reset your brain, take three deep breaths slowly. Make sure that when you're breathing in, you're inflating your belly like a balloon, and vice versa. Breathe out as slowly as you can.
This gets your wise brain—the prefrontal cortex—back online.
Step 3: Solve
Step 3 is to harness that mental energy. Grab a pen and paper, or open a digital note. Set an alarm for X minutes. Write the problem you want to solve at the top, and the time frame. And then go for it.
This way, you will come out with a strategy, not convince yourself you're deeper into the Apocalypse by the end of your typical worrying cycle.
Step 4: Reward
And finally, Step 4 is rewarding yourself. It can be a beautiful cup of tea or just telling yourself "Thank you for showing up for me." This reinforces this new habit, making you likelier to do it again.
You won't cut out worrying straight away because it's so well practiced. It's the super car engine that revs from zero to 200 mph in milliseconds. The point is that you start to cut it with kindness as soon as you spot it.
To track progress, these are markers you can use:
- How frequently you worry now
- How quickly you spot it
- How quickly you break the cycle
- How intense they are these days
- How long they last
Good luck with it, and may you use that vibrant mental energy to better serve you!
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.