“Suggestion, ‘…just stop worrying’ doesn’t work. Help!

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Suggestion to ‘…just stop worrying’ is not helpful. What is?

It certainly seems wise or rational for chronic worriers to ‘let go’ of worries about things they cannot change.  When we have no control over a situation, endlessly worrying does seem like waste of our time and effort.   On the other hand, it makes sense that it is much harder to stop worrying about things we think we might be able actually do something about.  In such cases, our worrying always involves being afraid of making a bad mistake about what we should do, how to do it, etc.    When worrying about situations we can do something about, we don’t want to make a mistake along the way. 

You may have had your therapist suggest that you try to sort the main things you worry about into two categories: 1)  things I can change and 2) things I cannot change.  You are then coached to remind yourself to stop worrying about the stuff we cannot change.    Unfortunately, most therapists can’t tell their clients how the ‘stop worrying’ is supposed to happen.  

One useful approach is to look at the problem from every angle you can think of and ask how you can do something to make a difference.  For example, if you recognize you cannot help a daughter whose husband has filed for divorce, about the only way you can likely help is to be a good listener and emotionally supportive.  You almost certainly cannot stop the divorce, make him love your daughter again, etc.   Generating a list of things you can do to indirectly help e.g., be a good listener, support the person, etc., can sometimes help alleviate chronic worrying.  

Another approach, perhaps a better one, is to identify something you are worrying needlessly about because your realize you cannot change it.  Then, create the simplest, initial ‘practice’ step you could take to set it aside for a short time.   To carry out this step, it is important to identify something you can elect to focus on instead of worrying, or that will distract you in a rewarding way from the worry.  Then you engage in that activity for a fixed period of time, say 30 minutes, and then review what you just did and the outcome.   Let’s use an example.

Let’s say you are worrying for weeks about your sister’s cancer and the outcome of her chemotherapy.  The ultimate outcome is nothing you can control.  The best impact you might have is through helping her with a few daily tasks and listening to her talk about her health worries.   Despite this, you too, continue to think and worry about the outcome, whether there is something you could do to help make her well, etc.  Now, you know that this latter stuff is the needless worrying you would like to let go of it, but cannot. 

The ‘letting go’ experiment involves steps:  1) deliberately reviewing all of the thoughts and ideas you cannot control for say, 5-10 minutes.  2)  Next, you agree to direct your attention and focus on something enjoyable and distracting for another 10-15 minutes.  3) You review the outcome and decide whether this seemed to be helpful, constructive. 

In the first step, you would rehearse to yourself exactly what you are choosing to do here:  “I’m going to try to figure out through worrying how I can help cure her cancer or just worry about how it will turn out; but after 10 minutes,  and write down an idea or two, even if it is completely irrational.  Next, I’ll agree to spend 10-13 minutes doing something I  enjoy–planting my herb garden. I’ll concentrate on the soil prep and planning the seeds.  After I do this for 10 minutes, I will stop and review what I just did  and ask myself what I think about it all.  Did I feel o.k. about setting aside the useless worrying for 10-15 minutes, let go of it, while I did something fun and worthwhile?   Is this a good way to help me start ‘letting to’ of needless worrying?  Can I do this again and extend the time to 30 minutes, or an hour. 

You would repeat all of the  steps a number of times, using a new worry or problem you can do nothing about..  Over time, after trying out the steps outlined above, you will likely start to feel more and more ‘o.k.’ to set aside the worries about things you cannot change and do something else with your time.  You’ve lost nothing by dong this and in fact, you have recaptured important time in your life doing something constructive by choosing to divert your attention elsewhere.