When I walked into therapy for the first time, I sat across from my therapist, introduced myself, and more or less said, “Okay, now how do I get rid of this anxiety?” In the kindest, most compassionate, and not-at-all dismissive way, she let me know that ridding me of anxiety was not her goal. Her goal is to give me the tools I need to manage and cope with my anxiety.
I was none-too-pleased by this answer, to say the least. I just wanted these darn yucky emotions gone! But I still went back the next week. And the week after that. And eventually, I started to get what she was saying. Being an adult human living in the world we live in means that anxiety will always be present. Always! Ridding your body of anxiety is not just impossible, it’s also unwise (after all, anxiety is our flight-or-flight response, and that response is there for a very good reason: to protect us from dangers seen and unseen). What you can do is learn to manage your anxiety, and maybe even harness it for good.
There are a lot of techniques I’ve tried to help manage my anxiety, but Worry Time is the one that has really worked for me. When you’re feeling anxious, most folks have a natural inclination to push against the anxiety. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I can’t think about that. I don’t want to worry about this. What’s wrong with my mind? Why can’t I just calm down? Why do I feel this way? You get the picture (and maybe have experienced it).
The problem with all this pushing is that the anxiety pushes back. By fighting so hard to not feel anxiety, you’re actually giving anxiety all the power. The solution? Reclaim your power by leaning into the anxiety. And that’s what Worry Time is all about.
How to Do Worry Time
Worry Time is all about giving myself space to feel my worry and anxiety—within a clear set of limitations so I don’t end up in puddle of tears rocking back and forth in the corner. There is something about giving the anxiety space to speak that really seems to strip the power away from it.
Step One: Brain Dump
The first part of Worry Time is to set a timer (I like 20 minutes), turn off my phone, and sit in a room with no distractions. I try to avoid doing this right before bed (because sometimes I can’t stop my brain from spinning and get to sleep), but other than that, I don’t set any real time-of-day parameters.
Then, I let my brain go as dark, anxious, and swirly as it wants. And I write it all down on a piece of paper or on the free printable you’ll find at the bottom of this post. All of it. No matter how outlandish, scary, dark, or embarrassing it may seem (no one needs to see this paper). Everything from, “my body is ravaged by cancer, and I’m going to die tomorrow” to, “what if that person on Twitter thinks I’m dumb?” Anything that is causing any kind of anxiety—no matter where it falls on the spectrum from trivial to serious—it all gets written down.
You’ve heard the term “brain dump” before, right? Well, this is dumping all the anxiety-inducing thoughts out of my mind and onto a tactile piece of paper. It sounds scary (and it feels scary at first) to let yourself succumb to the anxious thoughts, but for me, it feels so good just to acknowledge that those thoughts are real by writing them down.
Step Two: Find the Hot Thoughts
For a lot of anxiety-causing thoughts, just the first step—writing them down and acknowledging them—seems to be enough for me to take the power away from them. But every Worry Time session, there are some “hot thoughts” that need a bit more work.
Once the timer goes off, I scan through the thoughts I’ve written down and highlight the 3-5 hot thoughts—the ones that are really are causing my anxiety to go into overdrive. The ones that keep me up at night. The ones that keep popping up throughout the day. Those are the ones that need some more attention. I write those thoughts on a new sheet of paper.
Step Three: Categorize the Hot Thoughts
Part of what makes anxiety so scary is the unknown. Not just unknown about an anxiety-causing situation, but also unknown about why I am having the thoughts at all. It really helps me to categorize the type of thoughts I am having into one of the following categories:
- Catastrophizing: Picking the worst scenario and focusing on that.
- Underestimating my own abilities: Assuming I’ll fail, even if previous evidence shows I probably won’t.
- Overestimating probability: Believing that something with a 5% chance of happening is a sure thing.
- Perfectionism: Expecting an unreasonable amount of success from myself.
- Focusing only on negatives: Failing to give the positives of a situation the same emotional weight as the negatives—not seeing the whole picture.
- Predicting the future: Trying to predict what will happen and believing my predictions.
- Generalizing: Believing something will always happen in a particular way because it happened that way before.
- Mind reading: Assuming I know how others perceive me.
- Underestimating your ability to cope: Believing I couldn’t handle a bad situation if it were to arise.
By giving it a label (or multiple labels, as is often the case), I can pull myself outside of the thought spiral and get an unbiased perspective on the thoughts I’m having. When my anxiety is telling me, “Sarah doesn’t like me because she hasn’t texted me back” and I label it as “mind reading and catastrophizing,” it helps for me to discount the thought as anxiety talking—not a rational, evidence-based statement.
Step Four: Write Balanced Self-Talk
I’m not going to lie, this part gets a little hokey, because it’s all about talking to yourself, but it really helps to give a voice to rational thought.
For each hot thought I’ve identified, I then write a statement that helps balance out the anxiety. Basically, I explain to myself all the ways in which anxiety is steering me wrong in this example. My sister once described anxiety as “seeing the world through dirty glasses.” The balanced self-talk statement is like a cleaning cloth for my glasses.
Some questions I ask to help come up with this statement:
- Is there evidence against the validity of the hot thought?
- If I had to debate this and make the counterargument, what would it be?
- What would my best friend say to me about my perspective on this?
- What’s the bigger picture?
- Are there kinder, more gentler ways to speak to myself?
I try to keep the statement positive and forward-focused. Keeping with the example of Sarah not texting me back above, here would be a good balanced self-talk statement: “There are many other things that could be delaying Sarah from texting me back. The only person whose mind I can read is my own. If she does, in fact, not like me, that is her choice, and I will continue to fill my life with people who bring me joy and uplift me.”
See? Hokey! But good, right? For my personal anxiety journey, I find it vital to always acknowledge the chance of the worst-possible-scenario actually coming true in my self-talk statements. I don’t just dismiss my anxiety as ridiculous, I acknowledge that there is a possibility my anxiety is alerting me to a real threat, and that I am capable of handling that threat if it comes to light.
You can just leave the statement there on the paper, or, if you need an extra reminder, tape the statement up to your bathroom mirror so you can see it frequently.
Step Five: Move on!
Maybe the most important part of Worry Time is the end: once I’ve finished my self-talk statements, then I move onto another (preferably physical) task. I go for a walk. Or fold laundry. Or shovel some compost. I need a physical change of scenery and a task to focus on to arrest the Worry Time. I want to shut the door on the activity, and the best way to do that is to move my body.
If the worry and anxiety starts to creep back in, I (quite literally) say to myself, “You can think about this during the next Worry Time.” And that is normally enough to put a pin in it for now.
With my “normal” undercurrent of anxiety, I usually try to carve out one Worry Time session per week. When I was really in the throes of panic attacks at the beginning of my mental health journey, I was doing Worry Time once or twice every day—with pages and pages of brain dump at a time. It’s not a permanent solution, but a regular mental hygiene task that I need to do frequently, just like brushing my teeth or taking a shower.
A few months back, I created my own set of printable sheets to help make Worry Time a bit easier. There are two pages—the first page is just a blank brain dump page. The second page has spots to identify and categorize two hot thoughts, as well as space to write the balanced self-talk. I print out as many of these pages as I think I’ll need in a session, put them on my clipboard, and go to town.
If you’d like to download your own copy to keep and use, you can by tapping the button below:
As always when it comes to any sort of mental or physical health care, make sure you follow the advice of your health care professional, and always talk to them if something doesn’t quite feel right. Feel free to bring up Worry Time during your next therapy appointment to see if your mental health care professional feels like it’ll be a good fit for your treatment plan.