Next time you find yourself worrying about something, ask yourself ‘what am I worrying about? Can I actually do anything about this?’ If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, try problem solving.
Problem solving involves the following 6 steps:
Step 1: Identify/Define Problem
Try to state the problem as clearly as possible. Be objective and specific about the behaviour, situation, timing, and circumstances that make it a problem. Describe the problem in terms of what you can observe rather than subjective feelings.
Step 2: Generate Possible Solutions/Options
List all the possible solutions. Be creative and forget about the quality of the solutions. Then, eliminate the less desirable or unreasonable alternatives after as many possible solutions have been listed. Finally, list the remaining options in order of preference.
Step 3: Evaluate Alternatives
Evaluate the top 3 or 4 solutions in terms of their advantages and disadvantages.
Step 4: Decide On A Plan
Based on this evaluation, decide on the best one solution. Specify who will take action, when the plan will be implemented and how the plan will be implemented.
Step 5: Implement Plan
Implement your plan as specified above.
Step 6: Evaluate the Outcome
Evaluate how effective the plan was. Decide whether the existing plan needs to be revised, or whether a new plan is needed to better address the problem. If you are not pleased with the outcome, return to Step 2 to select a new solution or revise the existing plan, and repeat the remaining steps.
Having a good action plan to deal with real problems in your life will minimise your need to worry. However, next time you find yourself worrying about something, and you ask yourself ‘Can I actually do anything about this?’ and the answer is ‘no’, its probably an unsolvable worry. Postponing your worry will be most helpful to you at these times. Postponement involves “putting to the side” or “parking” the negative thought for now.
Postponing negative thoughts means that it is perfectly OK and natural for an initial “what if” negative thought to pop into your mind (e.g., “What if I fail my exam?”), but you make a decision not to ‘chase’ the thought any further at that particular time.
Not chasing the negative thought further means that you don’t try to anticipate the worst or run scenarios related to your initial thought through your head over and over again (e.g., “It will be a disaster, I will be a failure, I will get kicked out of uni, I won’t be able to find a job, maybe I should pull out of my course,” etc).
Instead, you postpone thinking about your worry until a later time. This will help contain your worrying to one part of the day, rather than carrying it with you 24/7.
How to postpone worries
1. Set a ‘thinking time’ – Nominate a set time, length of time, and place, to do all your thinking about worrisome things. – Try and keep your thinking time the same everyday (e.g., 6pm, 15mins, dining room). Try not to set your thinking time before bed.
• When you notice yourself worrying about something during the day, say something to yourself like “it’s OK to have that thought, but I don’t need to chase it any further right now”.
• Decide to think about it later and save your thoughts for your ‘thinking time’.
• Bring your attention back to the present task at hand and reassure yourself that you will deal with the negative thoughts later.
• If the thought pops back again (which it likely will), this is not a sign that postponement hasn’t worked, after all we can’t control what pops into our head. What we are postponing is further thinking, spiralling, chasing or snowballing of those thoughts.
3. When you get to your thinking time:
• You don’t have to think about them if they no longer bother you, or if they no longer seem relevant to you.
• If you realize the issue that is bothering you is actually something solvable, then do some problem solving on paper.
• If the issue is something you recognise you may be overreacting to, try to think about it in a more helpful, balanced, realistic way.
• If the issue is not something you can take action with or think about differently, continue to postpone it for now.
• Finally, it is often good to follow your thinking time with some activity that you know lifts your mood (e.g., certain music, book or TV show, a walk, time with pets, chatting to a friend, etc).
Common postponement pitfalls:
• Getting angry with yourself or saying things like “stop it” or “push it away”, are signs that you are trying to suppress the thoughts, which will only make the thoughts come back stronger.
• Giving up when the thoughts pop back. A thought may only pop up once, but it could pop up 10 times or 100 times. Having to repeatedly postpone the same thought doesn’t mean postponement hasn’t worked. Remember we aren’t changing what pops into our head, but we are changing how we respond.
• Any rational thinking is fine in your designated thinking time, but avoid using it in the moment to respond to a negative thought that has popped up. Instead acknowledge and accept the thought, and immediately disengage from further thinking until your thinking time.
• Some people avoid thinking time because of anticipating it will be unpleasant. Remember you don’t have to think about things that are no longer important to you in thinking time. For those that do still seem important, try to engage in helpful and constructive thinking.