Over the years, I have worked with many self-described “worry warts”. As a recovering worrier myself, I can relate to the tremendous mental and physical exhaustion that comes with worrying most of the time. Many worriers say they cannot manage their distressing thoughts, but, fortunately, there are several effective ways to handle this “what if” thinking.

Set Aside A Time To Worry

Each day, schedule 15- to 30-minutes devoted solely to your worried thoughts. You can use this time to identify and list your concerns (getting them out of your mind and onto paper can be very helpful) or journal about your feelings, thoughts, and any possible solutions.

It is very important that this be a time-limited session, followed by a distracting, pleasurable, or relaxing activity to get your mind off of your concerns until the next session. The beauty of this strategy is that when worries crop up at other times, you can simply acknowledge their presence and remind them they will have your full attention later in the day at the appointed time. This enables you to turn your attention away from your worries, towards what you would rather be thinking or doing.

Play Out a Mental Movie of Your Worries

Another technique worth trying — perhaps on your own or with the support of a counselor — is mentally playing out your worst-case scenarios to see how you’d feel and cope over time if these feared situations actually happened. “What if” thoughts are so troubling, in part, because we do not mentally follow them through to the end. Instead, like watching the scariest scene in a movie, we keep replaying only the worse-case scenario.

I once worked with a very anxious woman with a long list of “what if” thoughts. Her most distressing thought involved the fear that her healthy son could die suddenly. In one session, this woman faced her fear by imagining, in present tense and great detail, what that scenario would look like and how she would feel immediately after getting the news. Then, like a movie that continues, she vividly imagined how she would be feeling and coping at various intervals: two weeks later, one month, three months, six months, one year, two years, five and 10 years. While this exercise was quite challenging and courageous, it greatly reduced this woman’s anxiety. She strengthened her belief that while she would feel initially devastated if her worse-case scenario came true, she would ultimately be able to cope and move forward in her life. It can be very helpful to play out your feared scenarios in the same way.

Decatastrophizing

With this strategy, you draw on facts to figure out the actual likelihood that your feared situation will occur. Once you have considered this level of risk, you consider the best-case scenario, and then the most-likely scenario and how you would handle that. You also can visualize this most realistic outcome, which might help ease your mind and provide a great substitute for any fearful images you experience.

Other tips for managing worry include:

  • Mindfulness, which is defined as full awareness/attention in the present moment, without judgment of yourself or the experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, among others, has written some wonderful books on this topic, detailing various types of mindfulness.  A helpful mindfulness of thoughts exercise involves imagining your mind as a clear blue sky and your thoughts as clouds floating by. With mindfulness, you simply observe your thoughts as they arise and subside. It is only when we actively resist or cling to a thought that we disrupt this natural process of thoughts passing through our minds like clouds in the sky.
  • Formal sitting or moving meditation, like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or mindful walking.
  • Regular exercise which reduces the edgy feeling often associated with chronic worrying.
  • Relaxation breathing.
  • Sharing your fears with trusted others for reassurance, suggestions, and support.

Indeed, there are many effective methods for dealing with constant worry. You can use these strategies and others to calm your fears and quiet your mind.