If the cause of your worry is a real out in the world issue or problem, that is, something that has already happened; maybe you didn’t pass the exam, or you didn’t get the promotion or you got a negative appraisal at work. The first question that you need to ask yourself and this is a very important question “Is worrying about the problem helping or hindering me?” Most people when asked this question say “it’s definitely not helping – it dominates my every waking moment – I can’t think straight and I’m not sleeping.”
Why does this kind of worry hinder rather than help us?
It hinders, because repeatedly going over a problem makes the problem seem bigger and even harder to deal with and the reason for this, is that when we dwell on a problem we lose perspective on it; having perspective means that we are able to see the problem in context - we are able to see the bigger picture. By focusing solely on the problem, we exclude other, often more positive aspects of the situation. For example, by focussing on the negative features of a work appraisal, you may be failing to acknowledge the more positive things that were said about you. This type of ‘selective’ thinking has been identified as “Filtering” and has been categorised as a “Distorted Thinking Style”. When we filter in this way, we fail to see reality as it is, instead, we put a ‘spin’ on it that distorts and changes what we see. Distorting and changing reality is the root cause of much of the stress and anxiety that we experience in our lives. For example if you continuously focus on the work that has yet to be done on your project, while ignoring the aspects of it that you have already completed, it is very likely that you will feel stressed and anxious about getting your project finished on time.
An antidote to this kind of thinking and one that has been shown by research to work is to keep a “Positivity Journal”. At the end of each day, you make a list of three things that went well that day and why they went well. The good things could be anything. For example: three things that went well on your project, a positive comment from someone at work, or something simple like the smell of the freshly roasted coffee that you had for lunch. Research showed that at the one month follow-up, participants in this exercise were happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline and they stayed happier and less depressed at the three month and six month follow-ups.
Martin Selligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology says “We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives …. This focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savouring what went well……. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the (positive) events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote.”
How Focussing on the Positives has Helped Others
The following is a technique that I learned from one of my clients – an alcoholic in recovery. It is similar to the one described above. “When something negative happens, the first thing to do is to look for the positives in it.” As I worked with my client, I was able to see the many ways that he turned the negative events in his life into positives.
For example when he had to give up his own home and move back with his parents. He chose not to dwell on the negatives - his loss of freedom etc. Instead he focussed on what was positive about the situation and said “For one thing, I don’t have to worry about money for heat. My mom’s dinners are great. Plus, I have time and space to sort myself out.” When he had to sell his car, he again concentrated on the positives; he said “I really enjoy taking the bus, you can see so much more because you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road all the time.” Focussing on the negatives would have made him feel depressed and anxious about his future and would probably have sent him straight back to the bottle. Putting into practice the habit of seeking the positives in even the most difficult situations, helped him cope and kept him on the straight and narrow.
What do you think? Would this approach work for you?
Bernadette is a CBT Practitioner and Coach Psychologist in Dublin, Ireland.
Video: How to Overcome your Sleep Problems.
Author: How to End the Worry Habit
Follow Bernadette on Twitter: @bernfarrell
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