Set yourself worry time
During my reading, researching and studying, the concept of ‘worry time’ has cropped up a lot. I’ve always been a little sceptical of it as I couldn’t think of anything worse than setting time aside each day to worry about things. It doesn’t sound enjoyable or useful, does it?
I have recently been listening to the audiobook version of Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, in which he discusses the process of worry time as part of a more thorough approach to reducing worry and he quotes one of the leading researchers on worry, Thomas Borkovec. So I went off and did a bit of digging on what he had to say about the technique. I found that there is a good evidence base behind the technique and is useful in helping to reduce anxiety, rumination, and insomnia. In this post, I’m going to talk about the technique, also known as worry postponement and stimulus control, and how it can benefit you.
Borkovec is a well-known researcher in this field who has studied techniques like this for the treatment of worry, as far back as the 1980s (Borkovec, Wilkinson, Folensbee, & Lerman, 1983). His research has been replicated over the years by himself and other researchers. McGowan & Behar (2013) carried out a randomised control trial on the method with 53 participants. One group of people with high trait worry carried out 30-minutes of time and place restricted worry each day for 2 weeks. The control group were asked not to avoid naturally occurring worries that might come up but were given no further interventions. The group who set aside daily worry time benefited from reduced worry, anxiety, negative affect (mood and feelings), and insomnia, of which some were clinically significant.
Borkovec et al outline four steps to the process which are as follows:
Identify the thoughts. The first step is to become aware of your thoughts. If any worrisome or unpleasant thoughts pop into your mind, recognise it and move on to the next step.
Plan a worry time. Mentally agree to attend to your worries and plan a time later in the day when you can come back to them, a time of your choosing which is more convenient for you.
Delay and be present. You’re not ignoring your worries, sweeping them under the carpet or burying your head in the sand. You’re choosing to worry on your terms, not in the middle of work, a nice day out, or some other time when you’d rather be paying attention to what you are doing. Delay the worry until your planned worry time and instead fully engage yourself in what you are doing.
Use the worry time. At the time and place you agree with yourself, now’s the time to worry about your concerns. You might also take the opportunity to problem solve to help reduce or eliminate your concerns.
Here are a few additional tips you’ll find useful when using this technique:
Look out for your ‘tells’. Often worry is preceded with a set of behaviours. This varies from person to person. Perhaps you become edgy or fidgety, lose concentration or are less present. When you know what yours are, you can spot when they start happening and you can potentially nip the worry in the bud before it even starts. You can still carry out your worry time later so you can address your concerns.
Note your worries down. You can always make a note of what is worrying you when they crop up so that you don’t forget whilst postponing them. You can refer to the list when you begin your worry time. The act of writing them down can help to get them out of your head too so that you can get on and do what you were doing when the worries came up.
Be specific and consistent. Don’t just think to yourself, “ I’ll worry about it later”. It’s important to be specific, otherwise, your mind will just keep coming back to the worries. So decide, at that moment, when and where you will come back to those worries. A 30 minute worry period is what was used in the research and it was always performed at the same time of day and in the same location. I recommend you do the same.
Ditch the worries that you’re no longer worried about. You might have noted down a few worries earlier in the day but now it’s time to worry about them, they no longer feel that important. They’re no longer relevant or the emotional impact has reduced as a result of the passing of time and greater perspective. So there’s no need to worry about those - let them go.
Practise. Some worries will be easier to postpone and when you first start using the technique, you might find the worries reoccur later in the day. If that happens, run back through the process above. The more you practise the technique, the easier you will find it and you’ll feel the benefits.
I know that scheduling time to worry sounds a little counterproductive. I spend all my time as a hypnotherapist helping people to reduce their worries so why am I suggesting you spend time worrying? Often people think that their worrying is involuntary. By carrying out worry voluntarily, in the form of worry time, you’ll begin to realise that you have more control over it than you think you do. Because you have control over it, you might find that you are less uncomfortable about it happening. Additionally, by attempting to worry, the opposite tends to happen. Worry time is known as a paradoxical intervention which is used to bring about change. (Raskin & Klein, 1976; Rohrbaugh et al., 1977; Weeks & L’Abate, 1982)
So after being a little bit unsure about worry time, I’m now sold on it. I now understand the theory and mechanisms behind it and have seen the empirical evidence that supports it. Worry time is a good starting point to help you reduce your worries overall. But as Robertson states, it is just one piece of the puzzle. Other techniques such as cognitive disputation and cognitive restructuring can help even further, both of which I discuss with my hypnotherapy clients.
Borkovec, T.D., Wilkinson, L., Folensbee, R. & Lerman, C. (1983). Stimulus control applications to the treatment of worry. Behaviour Research Therapy. 21(3), 247-51
McGowan, S.K. & Behar, E. (2013). A preliminary investigation of stimulus control training for worry: effects on anxiety and insomnia. Behaviour Modification. 37(1), 90-112
Raskin, D. E. & Klein, Z. E. (1976). Losing a symptom through keeping it: A review of paradoxical treatment techniques and rationale. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 33(5), 548-555
Rohrbaugh, M., Tennan, H., Press, S., White, L., Raskin, P., & Pickering, M. (1977). Paradoxical strategies in psychotherapy. Poster presented at the American Psychologist Association, San Francisco
Weeks, G. R. & L’abate, L. (1982). Paradoxical Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice with Individuals, Couples, and Families. New York: Brunnerlkvlazel