Dealing with worry

Understanding worry and developing healthy management strategies can reduce the negative impact that excessive worrying can have on your life.

What is worry?

Worry can be uncomfortable, but it’s a normal part of life.

You might feel worried when you’re thinking about a future event, like a job interview. Or when you’re thinking about how a current event, like the COVID-19 pandemic, might affect your family.

Because worrying lets you visualise future situations, it can help you anticipate problems and plan solutions.

For example, worrying about a job interview can help you prepare great answers to a wide range of possible questions. Or, feeling worried about the COVID-19 pandemic could influence your decision to stick carefully to social distancing rules.

It’s common to feel worried in situations that are:

  • new or unusual, where you can’t rely on previous experience
  • ambiguous or open to interpretation
  • unpredictable, where it’s unclear how things will turn out.

Unhelpful worry

Worrying too much can leave you feeling anxious and apprehensive about life.

This sort of worry can feel like a chain of thoughts and images that progress in unlikely, irrational or ‘catastrophic’ directions.

For example, you might worry that you might lose your job every time your boss arranges a meeting.

Worries like this can become uncontrollable, taking over your thinking and preventing you from moving forward in your life.

Excessive worrying can also cause unpleasant physical symptoms, like:

  • muscle tension or aches and pains
  • restlessness and an inability to relax
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping
  • feeling easily fatigued.

Am I worrying too much?

Feeling worried from time to time is normal.

Worry only becomes a problem when it stops you from living the life you want to live, or if it leaves you feeling demoralised and exhausted. In some people, excessive worrying can lead to anxiety disorders or depression.

What can I do about worry?

There are several strategies you can use to limit the time you spend worrying and reduce its impact on your life.

Identify your unhelpful worries

Take a moment to step back and consider if your worry is about a ‘real problem’ or a ‘hypothetical’ one. Hypothetical worries are unhelpful, because they’re about a possible future problem that you can’t control or solve. They often begin with a ‘what if’.

E.g. ‘what if my car breaks down today?’ or ‘what if my dog gets sick?’

You can use the Worry Decision Tree tool to help you work out if your worries are about real or hypothetical problems.

Question Id Question TestResponseNext

Decision tool: What am I worrying about?

Is this a problem I can do something about?
Yes Q2
   No Outcome1

Work out what you could do.

List your options.

Is there anything I can do right now?

Yes Outcome2
   No Outcome3

Call them out  

If your worry is hypothetical, take a breath and consciously tell yourself ‘my mind Is focussing on a problem that I can’t solve right now’.

Once you’ve called out hypothetical worry, use the strategies below to redirect your thinking.

Make time for you

Whenever you’re struggling with worry, do something that makes you feel good. Try moving your body, getting outdoors or get in touch with a friend or family member.

These activities produce strong, positive emotions that can disrupt your anxious thinking patterns. If you practise them regularly, they can also improve your mood, outlook and resilience to stress.

Get more activity ideas to strengthen your mental wellbeing.

Postpone the worry

Try postponing your hypothetical worries until a set ‘worry time’ each day.

While this strategy might seem strange at first, allowing yourself to worry for half an hour each day means you can spend the other 23.5 hours worry-free.

Show yourself compassion

Sit down and write out your negative, anxious or upsetting thoughts. Once they’re on the page, try responding to them with the kindness and compassion you’d show if they belonged to someone you care about. This forces you examine your worries from a different perspective, making them easier to let go.

Focus on the present

Practicing mindfulness can help you let go of worries about the future by tuning your mind in to the present.

To do this, try focusing on the gentle movement of your breath, or the sounds you can hear around you. When you’re worried, these act as ‘anchors’ to bring you back into the present moment.

Discover more simple mindfulness activities

If your worry is having a negative impact on your daily life, find out how to seek help .