Beating Anxiety: 3 ways to control worrying

In a previous article I highlighted 5 popular beliefs about the supposed benefits of worry. I explained why there is no such thing and how worry only leads to more worry, less emotional maturity, and more entrenched fears.

Here I want to finish what I began in that article and provide a few basic techniques to help quell the worrying mind. In the list that follows, three strategies with proven track records in this battle will be discussed, as well as one popular strategy that I believe is harmful and should be avoided.

Proven Strategies

1. The first strategy worth mentioning is worry postponement.

This is the idea that one set aside a time late in the day reserved exclusively for worrying, and even exaggerated worry. This is a multidimensional technique which trains one to (1) monitor one’s daily acts of worrying, hence creating self-awareness of how much, when, and about what one worries, (2) to practice controlling when one worries, which helps demonstrate that one does in fact have some control over the worrying process, and (3) to intentionally exaggerate the worry, which paradoxically works to eliminate unwanted emotional responses to perceived threats.

This is a strategy used in both CBT and Existential therapy. It has the typical hallmarks of CBT in its sense of directedness and practice of cognitive control, but it relies heavily on Existential ideas about paradoxical intent as well. Paradoxical intent is a therapeutic technique made famous by Viktor Frankl for conquering unwanted beliefs or emotional reactions to threats. The idea is that when one intentionally amplifies an unwanted emotion or belief about a threat it tends to have the paradoxical effect of removing the unconscious power behind the emotion or belief. For example: if one is worried about an upcoming public speaking engagement one might tell oneself to worry like they’ve never worried before, to set the world record for stuttering, shaking, sweating, or whatever. Paradoxically, the more one tries to create emotions, the more one removes the possibility of those emotions from occurring naturally.

This strategy was also used by Kierkegaard in his advice to those who struggle with gambling addiction. He encouraged one to not give up gambling but to simply tell oneself, “not now, but I will gamble tomorrow.” If one could successfully put off the addictive behavior for another day – i.e. practice impulse control – then one could, theoretically, put it off for good. After all, the power of addiction is contained in the very moment of desire; having the power to put off an addictive behavior for another time is precisely to remove the behavior from the category of addiction.

2.  A second strategy is to learn to include an intentional inclusion of positive “what if” beliefs along with all one’s negative beliefs. This one is easy. Instead of allowing worry to have its perfect work of contemplating every possible negative outcome, one intentionally upsets this habit by tagging on specific positive outcomes, for example: “what if she says yes to a date?”, “what if my speech is incredible?”, “what if I do get the job?” etc. As with the first strategy, this one is not likely to work immediately, it is typically only effective after continuous practice.

3.  If one finds success with the first two strategies one might consider purposely exposing oneself to threatening stimuli. This is a step usually reserved for later work in the therapeutic process because if it is ventured too early then one might only overwhelm oneself with the threat, which is likely to reinforce the reasons for worrying in the first place. (Remember: worry allows one to create emotional distance between one’s core self and a threat by turning mental images into verbal/linguistic thoughts, or internal monologues. If one exposes oneself to threats before developing alternative ways to think about and react to threats then the encounter is likely to make the object of worrying even more psychologically entrenched.)

Failed Strategy

Lastly, it is a typical reaction of both laymen and therapists to suggest that the worrier simply quit worrying, or (as it’s often referred to in the literature) to practice thought suppression. This is a terrible idea. When one attempts to not think about a particular thing, the frequency of thoughts about the thing often increase (particularly for those with generalized anxiety disorder). This can cause major frustration for a chronic worrier who wants desperately to stop the cycle of worry. At first, they believe they can make themselves stop – muscle through it mentally. Then, after their inevitable fail, they fall into self-pity for their lack of strength, which drags them into the next step in the process: they begin to worry about worrying (i.e. metaworry), and it’s all downhill from there.

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