I was sitting in the passenger seat of our car and my husband was driving us home from the supermarket. I don’t remember the context of our conversation, but my husband dropped a bombshell that would literally change my life.
I had asked him if he thought my worrying had an impact on our relationship. He said that my worrying was having a negative effect on every single aspect of my life, including our relationship.
That might not seem like much of a bombshell, but to me, it was a defining moment.
It seems bizarre when I look back now that I was living under the assumption that worrying and over-thinking were just normal human behaviors. That everyone was thinking in the same patterns as I was back then. It wasn’t until my husband pointed out what an impact these thinking patterns were having across both of our lives, that I took a step back and realised that there might be another way. I had been worrying for as long as I remember, second-guessing what other people thought, turning challenging situations into catastrophic possibilities and quite frankly assuming the worst in everything.
I had just assumed that everyone else was doing the same thing. Apparently not.
Over the next two years, I embarked upon a journey that would, eventually, result in whilst not living worry-free at least finally feeling in control of worry and able to not let worries rule my day to day life.
I tried many techniques along the way, mindset coaching, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), self-guided Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, journaling and worry time. I read so many books, listened to podcasts and spent hours researching on the internet – how do I stop worrying?
Everything helped a little, but I struggled to stick to anything for longer than a few weeks. Relief would come, but when I started to slack off I’d be back to where I was in the beginning, working through a cycle of improving and managing my worries and then falling back into old bad habits.
How the worry tree technique helped me manage my worries for good
Then I came across the worry tree technique and it changed my life.
It’s such a simple principle, based upon Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) where you learn how your thoughts, feelings and beliefs are interconnected and how to change them. There are three essential steps to the worry tree.
Catching your worries in the act
The first, and perhaps most challenging, step is to recognise when you are worried about something. You might be self-aware enough to spot the thought pattern as it circles inside your head, or you might not notice you’ve been worrying until you feel the physical symptoms of worry – the dropping sensation in your stomach, or the rising anxiety or raised heartbeat of panic. Catching your worries as they arise is the critical first step to managing them. If you find this really difficult (and it does get much easier with practice) you can set yourself little reminders to check in with yourself throughout the day, thinking to yourself, what am I worried about right now?
Challenging your worries
The next step in the worry tree is to challenge your worries, asking yourself, is this thought serving me? Is it helpful? Can I do anything about this worry? Often you can do something. You can book the doctor’s appointment. You can speak to your child’s teacher. You can journal solutions to the problem you are facing. Take some time to look at your worry from an objective standpoint. If my friend told me about this worry, what would I say to them? If you can do this on paper, or on an app on your phone, then all the better, because often seeing our worries written down gives us that much needed perspective.
If you can’t do anything about your worry, because it’s much bigger than you or out of your control, then you might be able to do something small that on some level helps with the worry. Or you might be able to change your response to the situation instead. You might not be able to stop climate change from happening across the earth, but you can make changes in your own life that contribute to that problem.
Moving on from your worries
Once you’ve worked through possible solutions to your worry and made a note of what action you’re going to take, it’s so much easier to move on from that worry. And if you can’t do anything about your worry because it’s out of your control, then it’s time to distract yourself and break the thought cycle. The best way to do this is to change your physical activity for ten minutes. Get up from your chair and go outside. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk. Do something physical that’s different from what you were doing before. This is almost always enough to break the cycle of worrying thoughts, distract you and move you forwards.
These three simple steps, taken regularly and with commitment, have literally changed the way my mind works. Neuroplasticity means that we can rewire our brains and help them to take new, more constructive thought paths away from the worry. As the months of practice went by, I found myself worrying significantly less than I was before and more able to stay in the present most of the time.
It’s not a magic bullet, I don’t think anyone can go through their whole life not worrying about a thing, but with consistent, committed practice, I have changed my thought patterns, allowing me to live a much better life, almost free of worry, and you can too.