Worry is one of the most common problems that brings clients in to work with me.
So what is worry?
Worry is triggered when our minds jump into the future and imagine bad outcomes, even if these outcomes are very unlikely. For example, imagine that you have to prepare and give a big talk for work. If you are a worrier, you will probably start noticing that scary mental images start “popping” into your mind, such as images of everyone in the room looking really bored, walking out, or being disrespectful.
The next step in worry occurs when we respond to the original mental image by trying to figure out ways that we can stop these feared outcomes from happening. I will prepare a lot. I will make sure to have well organized notes.
On the surface this kind of mental preparation seems quite helpful. The problem is that the anxious mind will immediately start thinking of reasons that these coping plans won't work. But what if I prepare hard and I still find that I haven't prepared enough? ...But what if I forget to take my notes with me?
So now we have a whole bunch of new problems to mentally solve. Okay I 'll leave my notes on the kitchen counter to remind me to take them. Again, this seems reasonable, except now your anxious mind will immediately produce an image of you being so stressed out that you walk right past your counter and forgetting your notes. And on and on it goes. Possible solution; possible problem with that solution. Until all of these different scenarios begin to spiral and multiply. Its exhausting.
On the other hand there's problem-solving. It starts in a similar way. We have a problem: we have a big presentation to give and we aren't fully prepared yet. But unlike with worry (which we tend to do while we are doing other things like shopping for groceries, watching TV, having a conversation with our partner etc etc) we decide that we are going to engage in problem solving as an activity unto itself. Another difference is that, unlike worry, we do problem solving on paper. This may sound a little unnecessary at first. But I am amazed at how important this is, because getting the problem out on paper makes it more concrete and tangible. And this helps us to stay on track and not to spin off into outer space the way that we do when we are worrying.
Once we define a problem on paper the next step is to brainstorm alternative actions that we might be able to take to solve it. For example we could set ourselves a plan of certain number of hours of preparation for the talk, we could lay our notes on the counter the night before, we could make a plan to go over the presentation in a mock rehearsal with some colleagues in advance etc etc. Once we have generated a reasonable number of alternatives, we go through the pros and cons of each one. And then we select one or a handful of these to try. And in another key difference from worry; we then actually put these strategies into place instead of staying stuck in mentally “planning”. And finally, we evaluate how well the chosen strategies worked so we can decide what to do next.
By learning to problem solve instead of worry, we end up solving the solvable problems in our lives sooner, more effectively, and with much less suffering along the way. Even more importantly, over time this strategy can help us begin to trust more deeply that even when bad things do happen, or even when the coping strategies that we try out at first don't work, we are much stronger and more able to cope then anxiety wants us to believe.
If worry is something that you struggle with in your life and you do end up working with me there's a good chance that I will end up presenting these ideas again and inviting you to experiment, with my guidance and support, in using the power of problem-solving to overcome the very real suffering that worry can help to create.