How To More Effectively Manage Your Worry

With the prolonged and continued impacts of COVID-19, it may seem like worry is a constant daily, if not hourly, companion. Author and humorist Erma Bombeck famously observed “Worrying is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” When looking at the science, Ms. Bombeck’s words are both profound and prophetic.

One compelling study looked at whether our worries eventually materialize. Participants with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) were asked to track their worries in a Worry Outcome Journal (WOJ) for 10 days by answering a series of questions, which were prompted via text alert. The participants were also instructed to track these worries for a period of 20 days following their last journal entry to see how many came true.

In a fascinating and insightful finding, the researchers discovered that over 90% of the worries never happened. What’s more, of the worries that did come true, in one-third of the cases, participants reported that they turned out much better than anticipated.

We also are not especially talented at predicting the likelihood of our worries coming to life. As part of the experiment, participants were prompted to guess how likely it was that their worry would come true from two perspectives:

  1. Gut reaction/insight – prompted by their feelings about the worry
  2. Logical insight – prompted by asking participants to answer the question: “If the most rational person in the world were to give a probability as to how likely this event would come true, what would it be?”

Even when prompted to think logically about their predictions, participants were still way off. While participants predicted that more than 40% of their worries would happen, fewer than 10% actually did happen.

The costs of worrying were not only limited to false predictions. The researchers also found worrying significantly impacted the lives of participants in other ways. Unfortunately, worrying took up a tremendous amount of their mental space and time. On average, participants reported that almost 25% of their thinking time was dedicated to worrying. Clearly, this undermines our ability to be productive, as rather than identifying action steps that we can take, we are preoccupied in our rocking chair.

Putting Science into Practice

Although the sample size was small, this study is instructive, as it is the first to systematically examine worry in this way.

If you are prone to worry, the evidence suggests that it may be beneficial in starting a Worry Outcome Journal. In fact, when compared to another group of individuals who only wrote down their daily thoughts in a more generalized manner, the WOJ participants experienced a significantly decrease in worries over time.

Another potential benefit to this technique is that it gives us an opportunity to put our mental model to the test. Fear can significantly undermine the quality of our decisions as well as our level of engagement and productivity. Taking stock of our worries in this type of systematic fashion can put our fears to the test. Researchers concluded that one of the reasons why the WOJ intervention may have assisted participants in lowering their anxiety was because of the realization that there was a mismatch between their probability of a future worry coming true.

One final tip may make this exercise even more valuable. When you write down your worries, take some time to look for patterns across the examples listed. This may provide some insight into the types of areas you feel more anxious about. This macro-level insight could lead to identifying higher-order steps that could be taken to mitigate these issues on a grander scale. This could help deal with your worry at the source, rather than dealing with it more symptomatically.

Conclusion

While worrying is natural, there is a risk of it overtaking our cognitive and emotional resources, which can impact our productivity as well as our physical and psychological health. Taking a more mindful and evidence-based approach to how we deal with our worry can provide a powerful and effective antidote. Taking control of our worry and testing the limits of our assumptions can build our resilience, both now and in the future.

First featured on Forbes.com