Did you know that there is a difference between productive worry and unproductive worry? It’s true! Not all worrying is bad for you. In fact, some form of worry is healthy. It’s actually your mind’s way of protecting you and keeping you safe.
The problem occurs when those worries become unproductive, creating anxious thoughts. As an anxiety therapist, I’ve found that once you understand the difference between productive and unproductive worry, the easier it is to use that knowledge to eliminate a great deal of your anxiety.
Each day, we’re faced with problems. There are solutions to those problems somewhere, and it’s just a matter of finding them. Productive worry moves you toward an action plan to deal with the problems you encounter each day.
For example, let’s say I wake up one morning and I don’t feel well and I start to worry about my health. That type of worry prompts me to take better care of myself, to eat better, take my supplements, and be sure to get enough sleep. Can you see how productive worry prompts action? Those actions are the keys to finding realistic solutions to the problems you’re facing.
Unproductive Worry Increases Anxiety
On the other hand, unproductive worry asks the same question over and over again: “What if?” This can be a debilitating question because of the anxiety it inevitably causes. “What if?” is never followed by anything good, is it?
Instead of being solution-oriented, unproductive worry creates new problems for you. It can also make your current problems seem much worse. Have you ever asked yourself these questions:
- What if something goes wrong?
- What If I make a mistake?
- What if the unexpected happens?
- What if the worst-case scenario happens?
If you tend to worry, there are a thousand “What-if’s” you probably ask yourself all the time. The problem with these questions (and with this type of worrying) is that it keeps you from actively seeking productive solutions to the things you’re struggling with.
Leaving the Present Moment
With unproductive worry, you’re actually allowing your mind to create problems that don’t exist in the present moment. You mind can get fixated on potential problems that may or may not ever occur in the future. Be honest with yourself: How often do those “What-if’s” and worst-case scenarios actually happen?
Unproductive worry instantly creates anxiety. That’s precisely how you can tell that it is the unproductive variety. Unproductive worry creates a vicious cycle of worry that is typical for chronic worriers.
The key to breaking the vicious cycle is to shift worry from unproductive to productive. Start doing this by formulating an action plan for even the smallest of problems you encounter each day. Consider writing it down to keep it from swirling round and round in your head.
Could Worry Be Comforting?
Too often, people get stuck in their unproductive worry cycle. Perhaps it’s because that’s the only way they know how to think. Perhaps they grew up in a home where that worry or anxiety was common.
Often times clients will come to realize that they worry because it actually makes them more comfortable. There’s some temporary comfort in worrying because it can feel like you’re addressing or preventing the problem. But this is just a misperception. Unproductive worry never solves or prevents problems. Any comfort it brings is short-lived and as soon as a state of discomfort returns, it brings on more worry. And the vicious cycle continues.
Get Off the Hamster Wheel
Problems usually get bigger (exaggerated in your mind) the longer the unproductive worry continues…creating more fear…creating more discomfort…therefore the need to worry more… and it’s hard to get off the hamster wheel.
There is a way to combat anxiety, stress, tension and all of the other symptoms your worry causes you. The key is learning how to shift the old thinking patterns in your mind. Understanding the difference between productive and unproductive worry is a beginning. Making changes in your thinking so you can feel comfortable even without worrying is the real goal.