When You Can't Control Your Worries

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

Worries have a habit of clustering around a few things. These typically relate to finances, health, relationships, and work. Most of the worriers I’ve worked with tend to be the cautious types. They weigh up the potential risks of situations, take fewer chances, and look for well-rounded solutions. This says to me there are both benefits and limitations to worry. On the plus side, there is always the possibility that our concerns keep us safe and healthy. For example, a key motivation to quit smoking relates to concerns about cancer, respiratory problems, and heart conditions. The same might be said for eating a healthy diet, visiting the dentist, voluntary screening, breast self-examination, and so on.

But there’s a balance to be struck. Excessive worry becomes debilitating. It can trigger the stress response and heighten beliefs that you are losing control. People who worry excessively tend to adopt a “what if” style of thinking. As the worry progresses, it becomes more negative in nature. Here’s an example:

Sally is a teacher. She is usually one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave, but this morning her train broke down. When the next train finally arrived, it was packed. She squeezed in and found herself next to someone with a cold. A string of worrying thoughts began to unfold. “What if I’m disciplined for being late? What if I catch this cold? I’ll have to take time off work and I’ll lose that chance for promotion.”

Because Sally is a worrier, her thoughts becomes more catastrophic. Given enough time, she will become convinced that not only will she be disciplined, become ill, and lose her promotion prospects, she’ll probably also lose her job as well.

What can we learn from Sally’s plight? As with all chronic worrying, two things stand out. The first is that it’s unimportant, and the second is, it’s unlikely. Even if Sally catches a cold, how significant is that? What is the likelihood of being disciplined or fired for circumstances totally out of her control?

It is possible to learn ways to neutralize negative thinking for worry. I’m not sure how easy this is without a person to guide and support you, but if you’re motivated to change, then half the battle is already won. You start the process by asking yourself some questions:

  • What is the worst possible outcome if what I’m worried about actually happens?

  • How likely am I to remember what I’m worrying about in a week or two weeks?

  • Compared to other things I worry about, is this less worrying, about the same, or more worrying?

If you struggle to answer questions like these, chances are you have given your worries a significance and value they simply don’t deserve. Of course, some of your concerns will be more practical and realistic, but the trick here is to learn how to problem-solve and then let the worries go. Here are some techniques to try:

  • If you believe you can do something about the worry, work out an action plan by considering the options.

  • If you can do it now, fine; if not, let go of the worry by doing something more pleasurable or something that focuses your attention elsewhere.

  • Don’t indulge in checking, seeking reassurances, or sitting by the telephone “in case.”

  • Don’t avoid something if it needs to be dealt with. If, for example, you can’t afford to pay a bill, worrying about it for days on end won’t help. This is an example of a realistic worry that can be overcome by taking action.

One of the main reasons you worry is because you really dislike uncertainty. Worrying actually helps to reduce uncertainty by fuelling the imagination. You work out different scenarios and different outcomes in your mind and this gives a false sense of predictability and control. Given long enough, you’re bound to be able to say, “There you are. I told you so.” But you mustn’t confuse worry with the powers of prediction. Worry will never change the outcome of something, nor will it make it more certain.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.