It’s tough to be productive in your daily life when anxiety and worry are dominating your thoughts. But what can you do?
Telling yourself to stop worrying doesn’t work?at least not for long. You can distract yourself for a moment, but you can’t banish anxious thoughts for good. In fact, trying to do so often makes them stronger and more persistent.
You can test this out for yourself. Close your eyes and picture a pink elephant. Once you can see it in your mind, stop thinking about it. Whatever you do, for the next 60 seconds, don’t think about pink elephants!
How did you do? Did thoughts of pink elephants keep popping in your brain?
Why trying to stop anxious thoughts doesn’t work
“Thought stopping” backfires because it forces you to pay extra attention to the very thought you want to avoid. You always have to be watching for it, and this very emphasis makes it seem even more important.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to control worry. You just need a different approach. This is where the strategy of postponing worrying comes in. Rather than trying to stop or get rid of an anxious thought, give yourself permission to have it, but put off dwelling on it until later.
1. Create a "worry period" Choose a set time and place for worrying. It should be the same every day (e.g. in the living room from 5:00 to 5:20 p.m.) and early enough that it won’t make you anxious right before bedtime. During your worry period, you’re allowed to worry about whatever’s on your mind. The rest of the day, however, is a worry-free zone.
2. Postpone your worry. If an anxious thought or worry comes into your head during the day, make a brief note of it and then continue about your day. Remind yourself that you’ll have time to think about it later, so there’s no need to worry about it right now.
3. Go over your "worry list" during the worry period. If the thoughts you wrote down are still bothering you, allow yourself to worry about them, but only for the amount of time you’ve specified for your worry period. If they don’t seem important any more, cut your worry period short and enjoy the rest of your day.
Postponing worrying is effective because it breaks the habit of dwelling on worries when you’ve got other things to do, yet there’s no struggle to suppress the thought or judge it. You simply save it for later. And as you develop the ability to postpone your anxious thoughts, you’ll start to realize that you have more control than you think.
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