When we fail to cope properly, naturally, we worry. Why do we worry so much? Well for starters, it gives us a false sense of something called control. You know, that highly addictive substance we all love to consume? Worry allows us to “brace” ourselves.
Just as we would physically brace upon impact, we do the same psychologically. We believe that if we worry, we’ll somehow be better “prepared” to handle the situation. In reality, nothing could be more fruitless or further from the truth. As J.K. Rowling once said, “Worrying means you suffer twice.” Ask yourself this simple question, what has worrying done for me lately? When has worry every benefitted me? More importantly, when has it ever changed the outcome that I’m fearing would/could happen? I’m willing to bet, it hasn’t…ever. And it never will. Once you’re ready to accept that inalienable truth, get out a pen and paper. Together we’ll complete Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) thought record to gain back control and emotional freedom.
1. Identify the trigger or situation
What’s the thought that caused the emotional and physical reaction? Here’s a hint. One of the most common culprits of worry thought are the notorious “What ifs?” What if school doesn’t start in September? What If I get sick? What if someone in my family gets sick? What if I lose my job? What if I have a panic attack? What if I fail?
2. Rate the intensity of your worry
Now that you’ve successfully identified the thought that sent your central nervous system into a frenzy, rate the intensity of the emotion from 1-100. For example, “Anxiety, 85/100.”
3. Write down unhelpful thoughts and images associated with the worry
Often times, I find those of us who struggle with anxiety and worry have exceptionally active imaginations. We immediately see in our mind’s eye the worst-case scenario playing out right before our eyes and our fight-or-flight system is instantly activated. Take a minute to write down what you imagine will happen. This could include your reaction, other people’s reactions, what they’ll say, what you’ll do, etc.
4. Examine the evidence that supports the worry thought
Yes, you read that correctly. I want you to find factual support that validates the worry thought. Bear with me, I know that seems counter-productive, but this will give you the opportunity to step back and take inventory of just how true and realistic this worry is.
5. Examine the evidence against the worry thought
Here’s where we start acting like detectives. Get out your mental magnifying glass and start inspecting. Just as a detective would look for facts and not opinions, we need to do the same. What facts show you that this worry thought is not true? Ask yourself, has this fear ever actualized before? How many times? You may just discover that it’s only happened once in the entirety of your life or not at all. It’s often helpful to provide yourself with examples of when you’ve been successful in accomplishing the thing you’re worried about in the past. It’s also beneficial to rate the likelihood of this happening from 0-100 to help dispute the negative automatic worry thought.
6. Insert more realistic, balanced thinking
Instead of entertaining the worst-case scenario that’s taking place in your mind, let’s think about what we would tell a loved one or friend who is worrying about the same thing. This is where we use compassion to combat the catastrophe. How likely is it that something positive will occur instead? Have I had positive experiences with this situation, person, or event in the past? One question I personally love is, “In the spectrum of my life, how important is this situation?” Is the amount of energy I’m putting into worrying about this situation proportionate to the importance?” No? Then recalibrate accordingly.
7. Re-rate intensity of anxiety and worry
By this point, most will experience a significant reduction in anxiety and the evidence of that will be quantified. This alone can give us incentive to start challenging the negative automatic thoughts instead of mindlessly believing them. Remember if this exercise didn’t work for you, don’t judge yourself, it will only intensify the anxiety. Sometimes we’re so entrenched in worry, it’s hard to think of an alternative possibility. Grab a loved one or friend and go through the thought record together. It may help to get another’s perspective, especially if you respect their opinion.