03 Aug Determining If Your Worries are Helpful or Harmful
Some worries are helpful. Thinking about anxiety provoking experiences or situations can lead an individual to make decisions, to planning ahead, and to engage in effective problem solving. Helpful worries tend to be goal-oriented, solution focused, and often start with “How”. For example “How can I help my daughter do better in school?”, “How can I get that promotion?”, or “How can I feel closer to my mom?”.
Harmful worries are those that don’t lead an individual towards a solution, and instead focus on what has gone wrong and/or may go wrong in the future. Individuals who engage in harmful worrying often dwell on their fears and, as a result, spend a large amount of time feeling anxious. They ruminate, or engage in ongoing thoughts about the causes and consequence of distressing events. When ruminating, people’s thoughts continually return to the initial distressing event, or trigger, which escalates their distress. Some ruminative thoughts are based in an inability to accept something, such as “Why would they do that to me?” and some are based on an inability to find an answer, “Why do these things keep happening to me?” Harmful thoughts tend to start with “Why”. For example, “Why is this happening to me?”, “Why don’t things ever get better?”, or “Why do I deserve this?” Individuals who engage in harmful worries are more frequently anxious and depressed and at risk for recurrent episodes of anxiety and depression over their lifetime.
The challenge is determining if your worries are helpful or harmful. Dr. Robert L. Leahy, a well-respected psychologist who specializes in cognitive therapy, devised a three step system to assist individuals in determining if their thoughts are helpful or harmful.
1) Determine if your worry is plausible and probable. Some worries are very realistic. Is it possible I will miss my train on my way to work? Absolutely. Is it probable that missing my train will result in my being so late to work that I am fired? Most likely not. Is it plausible that I may offend my friend during a conversation? Absolutely. Is it probable that I will offend my friend so much that they will discontinue our friendship? Possible, but not likely.
2) Determine if you have the ability to do something about the worry in an immediate way. If I recognize that I am worrying about missing my train to work tomorrow morning and being late I can choose to set my morning alarm 10 minutes earlier.
3) Transition from worrying to problem solving quickly. The moment I move into action I have transitioned to helpful worries. The act of setting the alarm right now may alleviate some of my anxiety because I am now asking “How can I get out the door a little earlier?” rather than “Why am I always so late and why do I mess up every job I ever get?”
Anxiety is constant throughout life. Learning to identify harmful worries and practice transitioning towards helpful worries can significant improve one’s quality of life. For further information on how to identify effective worry I recommend The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You By Robert L. Leahy. Ph.D.
Holly A. Hart, Psy.D. Clinical Psychologist