When worry becomes the problem….

What is worry?

One way to look at worry is that it is the brain’s random attempt at problem solving, but to no avail. A more formal definition is the:

“Prolonged and fruitless search for a solution that will provide safety from the perceived threat of harm” (Clark and Beck, 2010) [1]

Worry is typically future-focused; it is the opposite of present moment awareness (mindfulness). It’s about excessive thoughts that go round and round, creating stories we tell ourselves about what might happen and asking ourselves what we can do about it - ‘what-if’ questions about the future. This contrasts with rumination, which is all about the past, and often about questions of ‘why’?

Worry is essentially a dysfunctional coping strategy, a belief that worrying will solve the problem, and it may even actually provide some short-term relief from immediate anxiety, but generates more as you go over and over endless scenarios with no resolution. So it is exactly that - the brain's random attempt at problem solving to no avail. Worry can become such a dominant pattern of coping with anxiety that you end up worrying about worry - a key symptom of generalised anxiety disorder.

So if worry is a fruitless search for a solution to a problem, then a more fruitful search for a solution could be a more helpful alternative. That is what problem solving is all about - a more rational approach to finding solutions. Actually we all have a personal problem solving style - you may be more or less rational, more or less impulsive, more or less risk averse or avoidant in making decisions (procrastination). And depending on our problem solving style we may find that the problem we might have with problem solving is quite fundamental, in not being able to accurately define what the actual problem is. Worry can mean we lose all sight and perspective of what we are worrying about. Sound familiar?

So let’s define ‘problem’ - what do we even mean when we talk about a problem or problem situation? We can think of it as being any current or anticipated life situation that requires a response, but to which no clear or effective response is immediately obvious.

One way to deal with worry is to have a more structured and rational approach to what it is we are worrying about - a worry decision-tree if you like. When we worry, often we have a tendency to worry about things over which we have no control, which is obviously fruitless because you cannot change it or them. But the lack of control may make us anxious, which is why we worry - a vicious cycle. If you feel in control of something then you are more likely to have power to change something you dislike or are uncomfortable with. So:

  • What are you worrying about [define the problem]?

  • Can you actually do anything about it?

    • NO? then stop worrying and shift your attention to something else, or be more mindful (present moment awareness).

    • YES? Then work out what you could realistically do and make an action plan (i.e. problem solving])

      • Can you do anything practical right now? (solution)

NO? Plan when you are going to do it. Now stop worrying and do something else to shift your attention (or mindfulness – and let it go) [End]

YES? Do it now. Now stop worrying and do something else to shift your attention (or mindfulness – let it go) [End]

Just asking these questions of yourself can help to break the vicious cycle of churning over and over; of over-thinking, but getting nowhere. And ultimately then being more able to accept uncertainty: that there are some things you have no control over, and some things you do, and that’s OK.

So, let’s look at problem solving a bit deeper - a much more systematic and rational approach to solving problems, and the focus of the decision-tree above:

  1. First ask yourself 'What's the problem?' Defining the problem clearly is key; use the W questions: who, what, why, where, when and how (OK, it ends in W!) is the issue a problem? All too often worry is an attempt to solve an unclear problem. Maybe the problem is actually a more specific element of what seems like a massive issue, but actually it is just one small part, and so the solution may be more simple than you think.

  2. OK, now what's your goal - what (desired outcome) do you want to achieve? But don’t just set random goals, think about what’s important to you in life (your values) and then set goals that align with those values. Make them SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound.

  3. Then brainstorm options/solutions, avoiding the desire to evaluate them too quickly, e.g. dismissing something immediately because that option’s not something you (normally) do, or it’s not the perfect solution. Generate as many options as possible and only then start to evaluate the pros and cons of each. Maybe combine options together to generate a more workable option.

  4. Now weigh up the pros and cons of the various options - some will drop out easily, others may need revisiting to revise or combine with other options - it’s an iterative process of refinement.

  5. Now decide on the best (most realistic) option, make a plan to put it into action, and act on it - follow it through. No option will necessarily be perfect (such an option probably doesn’t even exist). But you can review the outcome and revise - learning from the process. Problem solving is a learning process - trying things out and learning by doing.

Problem solving can help you clarify problems in the first place, as well as help you find workable solutions. You may find you need a bit of help to clarify what’s really important to you in life (your values) and in setting goals - if so, seek help, because it’s important. But this is all part of building greater resilience skills so the next time you are faced with a problem you can approach it differently, and more effectively, on your own. To see problems as a normal part of life, things to be solved, rather than just another thing to worry about.

by Bill Sheate, 15 February 2019


[1]Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (2010). Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Anxiety and Depression: Convergence with Neurobiological Findings. Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 418-424.