There are a lot of things you might be worried about right now: your job, your health, your relationships, your loved ones, the last thing you read on Twitter, our current political landscape, the threat of nuclear war… you get the idea.
But if you’re thinking “oh great, you just reminded me that I have to worry about the threat of nuclear war,” don’t worry.
Or, if you really want to worry about it, figure out if there’s anything you can do right now to reduce the likelihood of your worry coming true — and if there is, do it.
Worrying productively means worrying about what you can control and change
A lot of our worries are unproductive worries. These are the “what if there’s a war, what if my house burns down, what if something terrible happens” worries. These types of worries often derive from our fear of being unable to control the future, and they’re unproductive — literally — because they don’t prompt us to take any action or change.
“A productive worry is something that leads to an action plan today,” Dr. Robert L. Leahy, author of The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You, explains. “It leads to a to-do list today.“
Let’s say you are worried about a house fire. Worrying productively means asking yourself what reasonable steps you can take to prevent a house fire and/or ensure the best outcome if there is a fire. Maybe you change your smoke alarm batteries every time you change your clocks. Maybe you discuss escape routes and meeting places with your kids. Maybe you set a calendar reminder to give your fire extinguisher a maintenance check every six months.
Technology makes it easier than ever to turn our unproductive worries into productive ones. If you’re worried about accidentally leaving your child in the car, you can use Waze to remind you to check your car before you get out. If you’re worried about needing to use the restroom in the middle of the latest blockbuster, you can download RunPee to learn the best time to go. I couldn’t stop asking myself whether I turned off the stove before I left the apartment, so I started taking photos of the dials before leaving town.
The next time you start worrying about something, ask yourself if there’s any aspect of the situation that you can control or change. Then make your action plan accordingly.
Use time limits and repetition to keep unproductive worries from taking control
So you’ve started turning your unproductive worries into productive ones… but you still find yourself worrying unproductively. That’s ok. It’s hard to keep the “what ifs” completely out of our minds. The trick is to not let them turn into thought spirals.
Dr. Leahy suggests setting time limits on your worries. “Write it on a piece of paper and put it off until 3:30 in the afternoon. Then at 3:30, you can spend 15 minutes focusing on it and making yourself miserable.”
If you have trouble limiting yourself to a worry time slot, it’s time to start practicing mindfulness. Leahy advises us to think of our worries like they were trains passing through Grand Central — we don’t have to get on every train that comes into the station.
If that technique doesn’t work, Leahy suggests using repetition to reduce the worry’s impact. “Repeat the thought a couple hundred times a day. Expose yourself to the thought again and again until you get bored with it.”
If all else fails, return to the first technique we discussed: ask yourself what you can do today to decrease the prospect of this particular worry coming true. You can’t control whether or not there’s a nuclear war, but you can call your representatives. You can’t control whether the person in the apartment below you leaves a candle burning while they sleep, but you can update the batteries in your smoke alarm. You can’t control the unproductive “what if” worries that pop into your head, but you can practice strategies to make them take up less space — or use these tips to turn them into productive ones.