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  • Elizabeth McMahon Ph.D.

9 Steps to Keep Worry From Hijacking Your Brain

Schedule a time to worry. It sounds crazy, but it works.

9 Steps to Keep Worry From Hijacking Your Brain

  • Paradoxically, scheduling a time every day to worry reduces worrying.

  • Do your scheduled worrying at the same time and place for up to 30 minutes.

  • At other times, postpone thinking about worries until the next scheduled worry time.


The first two posts in this series about worry discussed ways to distinguish helpful, adaptive worrying (“3 Ways to Tell If Worry Is Helpful") from unhelpful, maladaptive worrying ("5 Signs That Worry Is Not Helpful").


This post teaches you a proven worry-reduction technique: scheduled daily worrying.


Hold on. It sounds crazy, but contrary to what you might expect, scheduling time to deliberately worry reduces worry’s impact on your brain.


Houston Worry From Hijacking Your Brain Therapy

Benefits of Scheduled Worry

Psychologist researchers Sarah McGowan, Ph.D., and Evelyn Behar, Ph.D., measured levels of worry, anxiety, and insomnia. Study participants spent 30 minutes writing down their worries daily at a chosen time and place. Guess what happened?


Pesky, intrusive worries became less frequent. Even better, when worries did intrude, they didn’t hijack the brain. The worry thoughts were less upsetting. People were less anxious, less worried, and had less insomnia.


How It Works

Follow these simple guidelines.


  1. Choose a time: Select a time when you will worry for 30 minutes. Research has studied worrying for 30 minutes, but some of my clients benefit from 15 minutes. See what works for you. You may need more time at first or during stressful times.

  2. Choose a place: Research recommends doing your worry time in the same place every day. This helps worrying from becoming associated with that one place instead of showing up everywhere.

  3. Set a timer: This lets you give your full attention to worrying. You do not have to keep track of the time. The timer will tell you when to stop.

  4. Write down your worries: On paper or a computer, write every worry you can think of, big or little, past, present, or future. Do not be rational or reassuring. Do not make plans based on your worries. Do not question, challenge, or evaluate your worries. Your job is to listen to the part of your brain that is worrying and put the worries into words on paper.

  5. If no more worries come to mind: Keep writing the last worry until some other worry comes to mind or your scheduled time for the day ends.

  6. When worry time ends: Move away from your worry place. Go do something else. If worries pop up at other times: Make a note of the worry. Promise to give it your attention during the next scheduled worry time. Then return your attention to what you are doing. Repeat this as often as needed.

  7. If worries come in the middle of the night: Keep your phone or a pen and paper next to the bed. If you wake up and start worrying, quickly write the worries. Promise to give them your undivided attention at the next worry time. Then roll over and go back to sleep.

  8. Keep your promise: During your next worry time, start writing focusing on any worry that came to mind since your last scheduled worry time.

Houston Worry From Hijacking Your Brain In Person Therapy

Houston Worry From Hijacking Your Brain Online Therapy

Why Is It Important to Keep Your Promise?

Because if you tell the part of your brain that is worrying that you will listen to it later—but you don’t—it gets louder and more insistent.


You are postponing worries to the scheduled time, not pushing them aside entirely or trying to make them stop. Pushing worries away, also known as “thought-stopping,” makes upsetting thoughts more intrusive and distressing. See Wegner’s research for details.


Can I Just Think About My Worries?

It seems much more effective to write the worries rather than think about them during the daily worry time.


Physical writing (or typing) seems important for several reasons:


  • Writing something takes more attention.

  • Writing uses more of the brain than thinking or even saying something.

  • Writing something down quite literally gives you “distance” and a different perspective on the thought.

Houston Worry From Hijacking Your Brain Therapy

Summary

Scheduled worry time is an unexpected—but effective—way to reduce intrusive worries. Follow these nine steps:


  1. Choose a time to worry.

  2. Choose a place to worry.

  3. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes.

  4. Write down your worries.

  5. If no more worries come to mind, keep writing the last worry.

  6. When worry time ends, move to another place and activity.

  7. If a worry pops up at other times, promise to listen to it during the next worry time.

  8. If worries come in the middle of the night, jot them down, promise to pay attention to them during the worry time, then go back to sleep.

  9. Start the next worry time writing any worries that came up.

Try it for a week or two. You may be happily surprised.


Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D., - Website -


References


McGowan, S. K., & Behar, E. (2013). A preliminary investigation of stimulus control training for worry: effects on anxiety and insomnia. Behavior modification, 37(1), 90–112.


McMahon, E. (2019). Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide. San Francisco, CA: Hands-on-Guide.


Wegner, D. (1994). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. The Guilford Press.

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