How Scheduling 'Worry Time' Can Actually Help Relieve Your Anxiety
May 29, 2019
My brain and my laptop are quite similar—both have about 20 tabs open at all times.
But, unlike my laptop, I can’t seem to shut down my brain at night.
My thoughts immediately become consumed with my to-do lists, forgotten tasks, and overall work-related anxiety.
Did I send that email? Did I miss a deadline? Does so-and-so secretly hate me?
And it seems like the harder I try to force out the thoughts or drown them out with my noise machine, the louder, more incessant they become.
I thought of the Erma Bombeck quote “Worrying is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” It seemed like deliberately worrying would set me up to get stuck in that rocking chair—but I was intrigued by Wingall’s five-step approach nonetheless, so I figured I’d try it out myself.
According to Wingall, “Deliberate Worry is the practice of consistently making time each day to acknowledge your worries externally, and if necessary, make specific plans for addressing genuine problems.”
Essentially, you’re training your brain to spill out all of your worries, concerns and anxieties at a set time, sort of like a brain dump. Here’s how I put it into practice.
Step 1: Schedule a Dedicated Time for Deliberate Worry
Because most of my bedtime thoughts tend to be work-related, I chose 4:50 p.m. for my worry time—ten minutes before the end of the workday. That way, I could get my work worries out and leave them at work, before I headed home for the day.
Choosing the same time every day signals to your brain that this is the time and space to worry, not as you’re trying to go to bed or the middle of the night.
Anytime can work for "worry time," so long as it’s not right before bed so you can give your brain some extra breathing room to unwind from the day. Creating a to-do list for the next day while you’re tucked into bed is only going to get you riled up—trust me on this one.
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Step 2: Embrace the Brain Dump
I keep a pocket-sized notebook in my purse at all times for fleeting ideas and lists, etc., so I decided to use it for my worry time as well. To-do apps have their time and place, but to truly “release” my worries into the world, I find old school paper and pen much more pacifying.
“You want to list as many of your worries and concerns as possible so that your brain learns A) There’s a time and place for worrying and it’s not your bed, and B) You have a trusted system for recording concerning problems,” Wingall writes.
For 10 minutes at 4:50 p.m., I sat and wrote out my worries. Nothing was off limits here. Unsurprisingly, my list was about 20 items long once I factored in my day job, my side-hustles and just general adulting—you know, schedule that nail appointment, order that baby shower gift, return those library books, respond to those texts, send those follow-up emails, schedule that doctor’s appointment, etc.
Step 3: Highlight Actionable Problems.
Next comes separating actionable items from hypothetical worries. “To identify these actionable problems, single out items that are A) actual problems (not hypothetical worries), B) urgent (they should be done in the next day or two), and C) things you have direct control over,” Wingall writes.
When I looked at my list, I noticed that a lot of items could fall under the general people-pleasing category. Even though I know it’s not popular or healthy, I care a lot about what other people think about me and my work. It’s as though my self-worth is tied to my productivity and likeability.
No wonder my brain was overwhelmed—it was trying to keep track of a seemingly never ending to-do list, as well as people’s feelings, which I have no control over.
I looked over my list and eliminated the hypothetical worries—like if my colleague misinterpreted what I said in an earlier email and if my editor secretly hated my writing.
Then, I jotted down the items I actually had control over:
1. Complete self-assessment
2. What if my gown doesn’t fit?
3. Finish freelance assignment
Step 4: Write Down a Next Smallest Action for Each Actionable Problem
Now, it’s time to get down to business by writing down the next smallest action you can take to solve each problem. My list looked like this:
1. Complete self-assessment. Next Smallest Action: Schedule work block to review the rubric and competencies first thing in the morning.
2. What if my gown doesn’t fit? Next Smallest Action: Set a reminder on your phone to try on the gown after work because the party is this Saturday.
3. Finish freelance assignment. Next Smallest Action: Set aside time to write an outline on Sunday so you’re not waiting until the last minute.
Giving myself actionable items as a follow-up to my worries helped ease my anxiety. Instead of feeling like I was spiraling out of control and getting overwhelmed by all of the items on my to-do list, I broke it down into bite-sized chunks I could manage.
Step 5: Set a Reminder for Each Next Smallest Action
I used to pride myself on my excellent memory, but it seems like as soon as I turned 30 I started becoming a bit forgetful. Basically, if it wasn’t on my calendar, it didn’t happen.
My husband uses Siri to remind him of tasks in the moment. I, however, am a fan of Google calendar reminders and work blocks. Once I had my smallest action steps, I added them to my calendar to hold myself accountable for getting them done.
Find a system that works for you, and stick to it.
Step 5.1: Relax
Admittedly, this is the hard part. My Type-A, perfectionist self is constantly replaying scenarios in my mind and wondering how I could do things “better.” But Deliberate Worry is “essentially a practice for setting effective boundaries for our problem-solving mind.”
One of the reasons Wignall cited for overactive brains at bedtime struck a nerve with me: trust issues. Put simply, “our minds worry in bed because they don’t trust us to remember and take care of important things.” Guilty as charged.
After embracing “deliberate worry,” I now have an easier time tucking into bed trusting that I’ve already thought through the worries that deserve my attention—and dismissed the ones that don’t. The best part: my sleep habits are all the better thanks to it.
Yes, worry is like a rocking chair—but having a “worry time” is like giving yourself a restricted amount of time to sit in it and think. Get intentional about your worry time, and, like me, you might find yourself taking a seat in that rocking chair a lot less.
Read next: How I Trained Myself to Worry Better
Today’s recommended meditation: