Five Evidence-based Tips for Managing Worry

Sarah Newcomb-Anjo, MA, Doctoral Candidate and Clinical Psychology Residency Program Intern, Horizon Health Network

My name is Sarah, and I am one of the two psychology interns working with Horizon this year. I split my time between the Psychology Department at Horizon’s Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital and Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton.

Today, I wanted to share some evidence-based strategies for how to manage worry. Although we all worry from time to time, sometimes it can be disruptive, unnecessary, or, simply, a nuisance.

First, it is helpful to establish what worry is. Worry is a thought process that occurs in our minds, often in a “What if…?” fashion. It involves mentally preparing and anticipating for potential negative consequences in the future.

For example, a parent may worry their child will get sick, or some people may worry if they are liked by their coworkers or if they will be able to afford their vacation. For some, worry is accompanied by images of their worries coming true. Worry tends to be repetitive, and can range in severity – from the occasional worry, to being very debilitating.

The good news is that many researchers have studied worry and have established some strategies that tend to help people reduce their worry and feel calmer. Here are some of these tips!

  • Maintain good self-care. We know that good sleep, diet, exercise, pleasurable activities, socialization, and healthy behaviours (e.g., cutting back on alcohol) consistently make worry more manageable.  If you find your worry is more common when you haven’t had enough sleep or have consumed too much alcohol, try to change these behaviours to lessen your worry frequency and severity.
  • Question if you view your worry as positive or helpful. While it is necessary to contemplate negative outcomes sometimes (e.g., packing an umbrella when you anticipate rain), rarely is worry helpful. But, some people think it makes them prepared, or a good person, or that it motivates them. Research recommends that you think about whether this is true or not, and even further, question whether worry is having a negative effect on your life (e.g., sleep, relationships, productivity, etc.). Letting go of the idea that you need to worry is crucial for not worrying so much.
  • Question if your worry is realistic or rational. Often, we jump to conclusions, and assume the probability of negative outcomes is higher than it is. In fact, researchers have found that 85 per cent of the time, our worries do not come true, and when they do, more often than not, we learn something or realize it goes better than anticipated. Ask yourself how likely or probable your worry really is!
  • Cut out behaviours that maintain worry. When we are worried, we do lots of things to minimize the likelihood of something bad happening. For example, we avoid situations we worry about, so to avoid confronting our worst fears. However, avoidance is one of the worst things you can do … It fuels your worry! Try not to avoid, experiment with facing your fears, and see what actually happens. Further, people will seek reassurance from others excessively, or make long to-do lists, or check information excessively (e.g., Google the probability of something happening), all to give themselves a false sense of security. But, research would suggest you cut these things out, because they only perpetuate worry in the long run. Dare to face the uncertain unknown!
  • Dare to contemplate your absolute worst possible outcome. While most worries are improbable, there are times where they may indeed “come true,” or result in a negative outcome. Ask yourself: even if this unfortunate event did come true, might you be able to handle it? We regularly doubt our ability to cope with misfortune, but in fact, we are much more resilient, and face hardships regularly. If you are still doubtful of your ability to cope, considerhowyou might cope. For example, you would likely reach out for social support, which may make it more manageable.

I hope these strategies are helpful! I think one of the most important things to remember that we regularly overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening, and underestimate our ability to cope should such bad things happen. Rather than allowing this to be your default way of thinking, challenge yourself to consider alternate ideas or perspectives!

That’s all for now – thank you for reading!

For more information on the Clinical Psychology Residency Program, click here.