Strategies to manage worrying

UCLA psychologist Michelle Craske talks about finding silver linings, one of several strategies she recommends to manage worry.

It’s normal to be worried with everything that is going on in the world right now, and in some cases it actually can be helpful.

Worry can draw our attention and energy to urgent problems that need to be solved. But worry can become an issue when it stops us from solving problems or when we spend time focusing on things we can’t control.

In this segment of the Care Package, we are sharing skills for responding to worry. These skills help reduce how much time we spend worrying and how much those worries affect us.

When you notice your thoughts keep returning to potential bad things that can happen, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What am I worried could happen? Sometimes we feel worried but we may not be in touch with what is causing the worry.
  2. Do I have control over what could happen? In other words, is it solvable?

These two questions help us know which strategies might work better.

Worrying about a problem that you can solve

Scenario 1: Imagine Jane is worried about her mother, who lives alone and far away, because her mother doesn’t have access to groceries.

This is a completely reasonable worry and a potentially solvable problem. Jane can ask a family member, friend, or neighbor who lives close by to bring her mother what she needs. Or maybe Jane can look into grocery delivery services that operate in her mother’s area.

Care Package Strategy: Problem solving to help manage worry

Just because a problem can be solved doesn’t mean it’s easy to solve. In fact, lots of times we put off taking action because we aren’t sure what to do. This problem-solving framework created by Raphael Rose can help us decide what we should do:

  • Step 1: Write a clear and specific description of the problem. Answer the questions “Who? What? Where? and When?”
  • Step 2: Brainstorm as many solutions as you can for this problem. All options should be considered.
  • Step 3: Rate the solutions, considering pros and cons of time, effort, cost, possible negative consequences, and need to rely on others.
  • Step 4: Choose the solution(s) that have the fewest cons and can be done quickly.
  • Step 5: Make an action plan with steps including who, what, where, when, and how.

On your own: Walk through Problem-Solving Worksheet.

Worrying about a problem that can’t be solved by you.

Scenario #2: Now, Jane is worried that if the quarantine goes on for too many months, the economy could collapse and millions of people could lose their jobs or retirement savings.

This also is a completely reasonable worry. However, it is not a problem that Jane can solve on her own.

Whenever we don’t have the power to solve a problem, worry is unproductive, and it can rob us of our joys. It’s like getting a car stuck in the mud, where the tires keep spinning and sinking deeper rather than moving forward. When we feel this kind of worry, the best strategy is to break the worry cycle. We recommend four strategies to help break the worry cycle.

Care Package Strategy: Focus on the present to break the worry cycle

When we are worrying, our mind is focused on the future. It is filled with thoughts about bad things that could happen and we lose productivity and enjoyment.

Focusing on the present moment can help stop this worry cycle. You might know this as mindfulness.

Steps to help you focus on the present:

  1. Find a comfortable spot in your home where you can be free from interruptions.
  2. Sit and gently close your eyes.
  3. Take several slow and deep breaths.
  4. Notice where your mind is. It may be replaying something from the past, thinking about the present, or worrying about the future. Whatever your mind is doing, just notice it.
  5. Shift your attention to what is going on around you. Identify what sounds you can hear, what scents you can smell, how it feels to sit wherever it is you’re sitting, or what your breath feels like as you inhale and exhale.
  6. When you notice your mind shifting to your worries, gently bring your attention back to what is going on around you in the present moment.
  7. Continue doing this for several minutes.
  8. Gently open your eyes and spend a few moments reflecting on your experience. Were you able to shift your attention away from your worries? What did that feel like?

Mindfulness practices like this one help us stop worrying about what could happen in the future by turning our attention to the present. Many activities can help stop the worry cycle, including exercise, hobbies, watching or reading something interesting, or even doing household chores.

On your own: Make a list of the activities that take your mind off your worries (Engaging Activities List) and/or use the above mindfulness exercise or the free guided meditations offered by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

The next time you notice yourself in a worry cycle, use mindfulness or one of these other activities.

Care Package Strategy: Shift your focus to those things that you can control to break the worry cycle

We can get trapped in a worry cycle when our heads are filled with things we can’t control. Focusing on what we can control helps to free us from this worry cycle.

In scenario 2, Jane can’t stop a potential financial crisis, but she does have control over making her house a clean and pleasant place to live while sheltering in place. When you feel overcome by worry, try the following:

  1. Create a “Special Projects” list of things that you would like to get done and keep it in a specific location. Make sure the list has specific, do-able tasks, such as “clean out my t-shirt drawer.” Avoid overly difficult tasks and those with deadlines such as I need to do my taxes before July 15.
  2. When you start to worry, notice the worry and consult your Special Projects list
  3. Pick one item on the list that you can start right away.
  4. Get started on that item.
  5. Once you’re done, cross the task off your list and congratulate yourself for finishing it. If you can’t finish right now, give yourself credit for starting the task and return to it later.

Tips: The Special Projects list is meant to give us a sense of satisfaction. It shouldn’t be like a work task list with specific deadlines. The items on our to-do list help us to stop worrying about the future by absorbing us in meaningful activities in the present. Crossing something off our “Special Projects” list can give us a sense of accomplishment and remind us of what we can control right now.

On your own: Make a list of Special Projects that you might start when you need to shift your focus.

Care Package Strategy: Seek silver linings when you notice the worry cycle

Worry draws our attention to the negative since we rarely worry about good things happening in the future.

To break the cycle of focusing on the negative, we recommend finding silver linings in even the worst situations. By paying attention to the “not so bad” or “positive” aspects of situations, we can reduce our worry and lighten our mood. For example, while we’ve had to cancel social or travel plans due to Safe at Home measures, many of us have been able to connect with people who had fallen out of touch. That reconnection is a silver lining. Another example is losing your job due to the pandemic. There is no question that this is a terrible thing. But there are some silver linings such as:

  • Time off means you will be able to help with your kids’ schooling and you have time to take on certain longer term home projects.
  • The unemployment benefits are more generous now due to the CARES Act.
  • You feel the support of your friends and family.
  • You have more time to think deeply and reevaluate life and what’s important to you.
  • You have a chance to explore a new career or skill that you wouldn’t have risked trying while at your old job.

On your own: Find the Silver Linings

Care Package Strategy: Schedule set time to worry

For some of us, worrying can become such a strong habit that it is very hard to stop. When this happens, it can be helpful to take control of our worry by putting some structure around it. A little bit of worry is not harmful, but it can be helpful to put some stop and start rules to it—in other words, scheduling specific “worry time.”

  1. Pick a time of day when you normally have 15-30 minutes for yourself.
  2. Set aside that time as dedicated “worry time.” It’s helpful to do this late in the afternoon.
  3. Whenever you notice yourself worrying, decide if the worry can be solved or if it’s outside of your control (as we did in the exercise above).
  4. If the problem can be solved, use the problem-solving Care Package Strategy (above). If the problem is outside of your control, put the worry aside until your scheduled worry time, and go back to what you were doing. Repeat this process whenever you start to worry.
  5. Begin your scheduled “worry time,” by writing down your worries—those you are feeling in the moment and those you felt earlier in the day. Notice whether your worries are the same.
  6. At the end of the scheduled “worry time” think about how it went. Did you solve any of the problems you were worrying about? Did worrying about them make your mood better or worse?

Setting aside “worry time” can help us be more productive and engaged during the day. It also can help us see how worrying usually fails to solve our problems and instead just makes our mood worse.

On your own: Set your worry time

Try out a strategy

It’s normal to be worried with everything that is going on in the world right now. Learning to manage our worry can help us live more happily even during these uncertain times. We have shared five different strategies to break the worry cycle. We suggest that you try out as many of the techniques as you can to figure out what works best for you.

Downloadable Resources to Use on Your Own

Information Sheet:

Pre-Work Lists

How-to Guides

Fillable Activities Forms