Studies show that picking a time and a place to fret reduces anxiety. Try this postponement exercise to manage your worry time.
Are you a worrier?
Worry is intimately linked with experiences of anxiety, poor sleep, and even with physical health problems—and it’s not hard to see why. When we worry, we’re stuck in an imaginary future world, repeatedly thinking through how we would deal with an infinity of threatening scenarios.
If worry had words, it might sound something like this:
- What if this [insert disaster] happens?
- What would you do if this [extremely unlikely event] happened?
- What does [that person you think so highly of] think about you?
Although we all worry from time to time, excessive worry can feel intrusive and uncontrollable. If your mind frequently wanders to the “what ifs,” you could try managing this time—making a date with worry to contain your woes to a discrete time and place during your day.
Scheduling Worry Time
Confining worry to a set time postpones it. Worry postponement works its magic by shrinking the worry space; over time, the negative emotions clinging to our anxiety and concern become confined to the special worry time zone—squashing the occurrence of worrying right down.
Here’s a simple worry postponement exercise to put worry on the back burner:
- Build your awareness of what worry thoughts look like compared to other thoughts.
- Set a time and venue (ideally away from the bedroom) to have a date with your worry for 15-30 minutes each day.
- If you notice worrisome thoughts arising before your date, acknowledge them and try to bring your attention back to the moment. Don’t repress negative thoughts that fuel the worry—if you try not to think a thought, chances are, you’ll think that thought even more. Instead, just observe unpleasant thoughts, and avoid canoodling with the worrying process until your date.
- Honor the worry date: sit with your worries and worry as intensely as you’d like, potentially using the time to problem-solve your worries. However, if the time comes and you’d rather not worry, that’s fine—you’re not obligated to fret.
To reap the benefits of scheduled worry time, it’s worth keeping worry dates going for a little while so you get used to the process. It’s also a good idea to schedule your worry time at least three hours before bed so as not to disrupt sleep.
Does It Work?
The simplicity of worry postponement is perhaps a deceiving indicator of its effectiveness—it really does work.
For people experiencing excessive and uncontrollable anxiety about numerous things, worry can be like velcro, latching onto a myriad of situations, objects, places, and even times of the day. Worry postponement can help enforce some boundaries on this ever-expanding worry space.
One study found 30 minutes of worry postponement each day over two weeks was more effective at reducing participants’ anxiety and worry to a clinically significant degree, compared to people who were asked to engage with their worries.
Postponement techniques may also be effective for helping children manage what are known as perseverative thoughts—repetitive negative thoughts characterized by worry and rumination. Researchers in The Netherlands found that after only one week of a postponement exercise, children aged 9-13 reported the frequency of their perseverative thoughts had dropped.
Worry postponement can also undermine the belief that worry is uncontrollable by providing evidence that it can indeed be controlled. In therapy, during worry postponement practice, a therapist might ask the client to rate how much they believe their worries are uncontrollable on a scale of 0-100 percent convinced—the goal is to shrink the belief to zero.
Worrying vs. Problem-Solving
But wait, you might be thinking, if you constrict worry or never worry, won’t you miss something important, or be less prepared for a dreaded potential future event?
The belief that worry is in some way useful is often what gives it momentum.
Unpleasant thoughts can compel us to reach for worry to get a handle on the problem. But whereas problem-solving is a fruitful strategy for dealing with future events, with worry we get tunnel vision on the so-called problem; the solution remains out of sight.
Worries can feel like stubborn intruders that are difficult to push from our minds. Worry can also disguise itself as problem-solving, which can fool us into thinking it’s a useful strategy to deal with negative thoughts and feelings.
The charm of worry postponement, or scheduled worry time, is its simplicity, making it a quick and relatively accessible exercise to experiment with. If you feel as though worry is an all too familiar foe, put your worries ahead and then behind you.
Carve out a bit more time to ponder the art of worrying.