How to manage worry thoughts (Part 1)

What are Worry Thoughts?

We all have worry thoughts from time to time, and these tend to interrupt our thinking without us wanting them to. Every day worry is part of life, and it does not interfere with our activities. It is the type of thinking that helps us to focus our attention on those things that we need to get done in the day, or that we want to keep in mind to remember them. Sometimes they are thoughts about things that we anticipate in the future, and it could be that they are a way of reminding us that we need to do something. Usually we can write these thoughts down as a to-do-list. This will give the brain the message that it does not need to remember these thoughts repeatedly as we have made a note to remember them. Then the thoughts can dissipate gradually.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” – Michel de Montaigne

However, when we talk about worry thoughts we are more likely referring to the persistent intrusive thoughts that prevent us from concentrating on our work in the current moment.

These tend to start with “WHAT IF + a negative scenario/consequence.”

These thoughts can also interrupt our being present in a conversation when we are with others. These thoughts are unwanted, and the content tends to be about potential problems – usually exaggerated – that we might have in the future. As human beings we have a hard time tolerating doubt, we tend not to like uncertainty and experience restlessness and uncomfortable feelings when thinking about the possible negative consequences. We can learn to manage these feelings, and learn to tolerate uncertainty which is essential to manage changes in circumstances.

Worry thoughts trick our brains in thinking the they bring useful information, but instead, they are repetitions of what we fear could happen. They are not an accurate representation of what could happen, but more of a reflection of what we are afraid of. That is, we associate worry thoughts with danger – anticipating negative events. (For example, in academic life, not getting a passing mark, or thinking that a lower grade than expected means we are not intelligent enough). We tend to believe these thoughts and fuse the thought with a consequence – that is, we interpret the feeling of discomfort/restlessness as evidence that the thoughts are highly likely to happen. And yet, as strong as the feeling might be, these thoughts are not based on accurate facts. The thoughts are related to an imagined future situation that we fear (eg. Not passing the module/degree).

We tend to want to stop the worry thoughts, or try not to think about them, but what happens instead is that the more we try to stop thinking about them the more the thoughts interrupt our thinking, and more intensely. This can cause immense distress.
What happens if we try to not think about them?
Trying to stop ourselves from thinking about the worry thoughts we are afraid of produces the opposite effect – we end up having more worry thoughts, not less. So, if you have tried to stop them and felt these increased it is an expected phenomenon, and therefore, not an indication that you are doing something wrong.

We tend to believe that the feeling of discomfort we get when having doubt means that we are in danger. Instead, it is the feeling of discomfort about the unknown. The problem is that we anticipate negative events, and in academic life it could be having a feeling of not being able to achieve high standards (eg. Will fail the presentation/exam, will not get an A in the assignment ).

Worry thoughts interfere with problem-solving as our attention is focused on unlikely hypothetical scenarios in the future, rather than focusing on the current situation to find a solution.
They are preventing us from solving situations as the repetition of unlikely outcomes keeps our attention away from the present moment.
Worrying does not solve the problem. It is just repetition.

Feeling vs Thoughts
We may say for example “I feel I will never get the 2:1 that I want, or I will not graduate”. These are not a feeling, these are thoughts. What is the feeling underneath this thought? Possibly, feeling sad, uncertain, a sense of discomfort at the doubt of what is going to happen.
The worry thoughts are a reaction to the content, that is, we fear the likelihood of failing as in the example.

Worry is a way of thinking. We spend so much time thinking in our day-to-day that we believe all our thoughts are intentional. We have the belief that we should be in control of our thoughts. However, our brains produce random thoughts without us wanting them.
Have you had the experience of listening a song that then you find that you have the song stuck in your head for a while despite not wanting to think about it?
You can try this thought experiment: do not think about your favourite toy as a child. What happened? If you are like most people you found yourself thinking about your toy, something you probably had not thought about in a while.

Sometimes having had negative experiences in the past we notice that there are some similar features with a current situation. We then assume that the same thing will happen again. For example, remembering that A Level exams were highly stressful and as a result of the stress you obtained lower marks than expected. Therefore, now you find yourself anticipating a similar experience in end of year exams. Having had a difficult time in the past, does not mean that there will be a repeat of the same situation. You can respond to the situation in a different manner. You can learn to manage the discomfort, the worry thoughts and focus on your goals. Focus on the learning process instead. To manage the repeated thoughts, and the tension they produce, you can experiment with doing a body scan.

Worry thoughts are fuelled by errors in our thinking process. By learning to identify these you can respond differently.

Errors of thinking

  1. Overgeneralisation: Thinking that one situation does not go as expected means that everything is wrong (eg. Not getting the grade hoped for =  failure of course).
  2. Mind Reading: Thinking that we know what others are thinking about us/our actions.
  3. Maximising negative consequences: anticipating an exaggerated/catastrophic outcome
    (eg. Not passing assignment = failing degree = others disappointed).
  4. Minimising personal capability of managing situation: anticipating not being able to tolerate
    distress. Thinking that it is to difficult to tolerate feelings, not recognising ability to adapt to situations (eg. Forgetting that when going through school had to adapt to change of
    class, adapting from primary school to secondary school, dealing with GCSEs then A Levels).
  5. Fortunetelling: anticipating failure in the future, or negative situations.
  6. Black and white thinking: thinking in extreme terms (eg. Feeling revising for exams is too difficult, therefore believing will fail year/degree).


  • Carbonell, D.A. (2016) “The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. “ New Harbinger Publications, Inc. California.
  • Leahy, R.L. (2006) “The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living.” Piatkus. New York.
  • Rossman, M. (2010) “The Worry Solution.” Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.New York.

How to manage worry thoughts (Part 2)

How to deal with worry thoughts

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ( Marie Curie)

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.” ( Norman Vincent Peale)

  1. Tolerate the feeling of discomfort produced by the feeling of doubt.
  2. Practice learning to trust yourself that you will respond to events with the information you have at the time.
  3. Do not compare with others: this is distracting and gives inaccurate information. We compare what we see in others, with how we feel. However, we do not have the full picture of how others are feeling, and we need to focus on the current moment to find a solution to
    the task at hand.
  4. Reframe, change perspective: instead, focus on the task at hand and think what one thing you can do to make progress.
    Write down some of the worry thoughts that you have had recently. Then ask yourself: “Is this a specific problem you are dealing with now? If so, what can you do to change something now?”
  5. Tolerate the uncertainty: Imagine you are going into a swimming pool, you do this slowly, at first yo may feel discomfort as the water is colder than you expected. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable, but you do want to swim for a while. If you go in slowly your body adjusts
    to the temperature, and the discomfort disappears. Think of your worry thoughts in the same way, at first they are uncomfortable, as you let them be without trying to stop them, and without taking the content literally. Eventually, you will gradually get used to them and
    the sense of danger will dissipate even if you still feel uncomfortable.
  6. Focus on taking action: consider what one small step you can take to have a sense of achievement (despite feeling uncomfortable with the worry thoughts). For example, you notice that the worry thoughts are about failing to complete the essay by the deadline, or imagining failing all exams. Notice the thoughts, then remind yourself: this is imagination, not fact. Then, ask yourself: what one step you can take to
    make progress with your essay/revision. The key is to focus on small tasks so that they are manageable.
  7. Focus on making progress, not the result: a lot of the worry thoughts in relation to academic work tend to be about the future, about failing, about not getting things done, or fear of negative feedback. Instead, focus on what you are learning, what you are doing each day.
  8. Remind yourself of your values: you can relate to these even if feeling frustrated, tired, or worried. See yourself as someone who perseveres with efforts, is responsible, wants to make progress, and is interested in moving forward. You can add more to this list so that you can use this list as a reminder. It is more effective when the list reflects what you
    knowto be true about you.
  9. Maintain your energy level: worry thoughts increase when we are tired. This is because we need energy to focus our attention on the task at hand, and when tired it is more difficult to maintain our focus and control our emotions.
  10. Practice mindfulness: focus your attention on your breathing, notice the thoughts and let them go.

  11. Ask yourself: 
“Is this thought helpful?” Probably not, then let it go. Instead, connect with your environment. Look outside of the window, or go for a walk.


Notice the sky, the open space, nature, feel the breeze, breathe in and out slowly to restore your balance.

Ask yourself: “What is this thought preventing you from doing right now that is important to you?”
Instead of focusing on the content of the thoughts, focus on what you want to make progress on.

  1. Breathe.Stretch.Move: it is essential to move and stretch your muscles. When studying for prolonged periods of time our bodies become tired and muscles can ache with the tension of sitting down for too long. Instead, plan study periods of no more than half hour, then stand up for five minutes stretch, walk, look outside or go outside and get some natural light. This helps the blood to circulate through your body, and take nutrients to your brain so it can function optimally. This will also alert you and you will notice you will be able to concentrate better.


  • Carbonell, D.A. (2016) “The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. “ New Harbinger Publications, Inc. California.
  • Leahy, R.L. (2006) “The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living.” Piatkus. New York.
  • Rossman, M. (2010) “The Worry Solution.” Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.New York.

Introduction to Mindfulness

By Vivienne Hill


Over the past few years the idea of living mindfully and mindfulness practice has gained in popularity, particularly in relation to learning how the mind and body work together in situations of stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness means “Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose and non-judgementally”.

Mindfulness is something you learn about a lot better by practicing rather than by reading about although there are of course many books and research papers you can look at if you want to. We all know that having regular physical exercise improves physical health. In the same way having regular mental exercise can improve your mental health.

The benefits of a regular Mindfulness practice, which could take as little as 10 minutes a day, are numerous including:

  • Reduction in anxiety, depression and exhaustion
  • Improvement to working memory, creativity and attention span
  • Enhanced brain function and ability to focus
  • Improved self awareness in relation to others and the environment

For more information please see the following links:

One way of reducing tension is to do a body scan. Here is a videoclip that you may find useful.

Would you like to participate in a research about sleep?

By Dr Claire Gregor
Do you find yourself lying awake for hours on end trying to fall asleep whilst desperately trying to clear your mind of work or worries?  Are you constantly yawning and giving in to daytime naps at the expense of restorative night-time sleep?  If so, it may be that you need a bit of help in recalibrating your sleep routines!
Whilst many people are familiar with the notion that a nutritious diet and regular exercise are essential components of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, in recent times, focus has started to be directed onto the importance of sleep as well.    A good night’s sleep helps with memory consolidation, tissue repair, and mood regulation, which in turn can lead to more harmonious relationships.  Research also suggests that improving your ability to drop off to sleep, stay asleep, and avoid early awakening can contribute to increased cognitive ability, and, crucially for a university population, improvement of grades (Trockel et al, 2010).  Yet many people are unaware as to how to improve poor quality sleep.  Before reaching for sleeping pills, an awareness of the architecture of sleep can be really useful in debunking some of the myths that surround sleep, and taking a cognitive approach to poor sleep can be hugely beneficial.
This part of the Mind-Body Conditioning talks aims to provide you with the knowledge and confidence to address poor sleep quality through exploring aspects of good sleep hygiene, cognitive beliefs, and practical techniques that will hopefully lead to you getting a better night’s sleep!  There is also an opportunity for you to participate in a research project looking at  knowledge of good sleep practices and how that links to sleep quality if you are interested.  For more information about this, please go to:

what to do to increase concentration?

It is the time of year when you are likely to have a number of assignments to work on and deadlines are approaching. So you decide to start with an assignment, but it is difficult to choose which question to answer. Finally, you decide on a question and get ready to start. After a short while you notice that your attention goes to your phone or tablet. Once distracted it feels quite hard to get back to the essay (could be a report or dissertation, depending on the module/course you are doing). You may then notice that you are hungry and it is close to lunch so you decide to prepare lunch instead, as there only about twenty minutes to go. You may feel that there is sufficient time to continue working in the afternoon.

But somehow it gets to the end of the day and you realise you didn’t make as much as progress as you had hoped. Then you may notice some thoughts such as  “I should have started earlier, now I won’t finish by the deadline”, “it is no good enough“, and other self-critical thoughts that just bring your mood down and a  create a sense of self-doubt.  This is a frequent experience in academic life, and can happen to most of us who care about doing things well. However, despite our intentions we find that we delay getting started, and when we do it is difficult to maintain our focus on the task.

When there are a variety of things demanding our attention, such as wanting to check social media to keep updated, or you would rather talk with your friends it is hard to make progress with work. We are social beings and we like to be in contact with others. Studying requires us to be alone for a while so that we can concentrate on a task. This may be hard to do especially when tired and when the task does not appear to be motivating.

So what can you do?

Practices to increase concentration and get things done:

Become aware

First, we need to be aware of something for us to pay attention to it, and once we have noticed it we then evaluate it to decide what to do about it. This takes time, in fact we can only focus on one thing at a time. Some people may be skilled at moving quickly from one task to the other and so they may have the feeling that they can multitask. However, every time we switch from one task to the other we need to refocus. This requires time and energy to control our impulse to do something different, and refocus again. Although this is demanding for the brain, with practice we can improve our ability to focus and maintain our attention on one task for a period of time. The more we are able to pay attention the better we can understand and remember the information.

Have a break from your phone and PC or tablet

It is hard to focus when we see notifications appearing on our phones, they trigger the urge to check what it is. The phone reminds us that others are elsewhere and we may feel we are missing out. It can therefore reduce our motivation to continue with our task (Alter, 2017). In addition, you may know that the screens of digital devices can prevent us from sleeping as the light interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us to get to sleep.

Be curious

Our concentration improves when we are curious, open to new ideas and when we are willing to consider other perspectives and possibilities. Experiment with playing with ideas as this stimulates our curiosity: identify what you can learn from the text you are reading, and imagine how you might apply it.

View mistakes as part of the learning process

Fear of failure prevents us from learning and from trying things out, which then can trigger a lot of worry thoughts about our ability to cope with tasks and can reduce confidence. Sometimes we find ourselves remembering some past experience back in school for example, when we may have experienced similar feelings triggered by something related to the present situation (eg. having to make a presentation and remembering reading out loud in front of the class). We may then feel unsure and have doubt about our ability to do the task. In academic work it is normal to have doubts because we are learning new things, we are testing out ideas, and in many cases there isn’t one right answer. Doubt makes us stop and reflect to consider the information objectively, and evaluate the facts from different perspectives to understand the topic. By reviewing and considering the feedback we receive we can learn, correct and improve our work.

Use feedback as a learning tool

When writing your assignments or taking exams, focus on communicating what you have learned rather than thinking about the grades you are expecting as this causes tension and distract you from the task you are working on. The main objective is to submit what you have done by the deadline. Consider the feedback you receive as information that is intended to help you learn from the assignments, and then use it to correct and improve your work.

Use positive self-talk

If you are finding it difficult to make progress, instead of thinking “I can’t do this” practise thinking “How can I do this?” Language is very powerful and it can help us to stimulate our motivation by directing our energy to problem-solving, and taking action.

Tips to get things done:

    1. Notice when you get distracted and your attention wanders to other things.
    2. Bring your attention back to the task, without self-criticism. The inner critic depletes our energy and erodes our capacity to persevere. Instead, ask yourself “Are these thoughts helpful?” Probably not. Instead, they are just using your valuable time. Bring your attention back to the task… gently… and focus on the task again, without self-criticism
    3. Be kind to yourself when you notice that you are distracted: identify the triggers, it could be that your tired, or that you remembered something important that needed to be done soon.
    4. Make a list of things before you focus on your assignment, and plan when you will do those tasks.
    5. Tolerate frustration: learning something new takes time. If the task is difficult it’s not an indication of intellectual limitation (or that you cannot do it). The brain requires time to understand and assimilate new material. If you are feeling tired it is more difficult to manage these feelings, so if you notice you are experiencing frustration or disappointment progress is slow, take a short break – pause, stretch and move. This will help to regulate your breathing and reduce tension allowing you to regulate your mood.
    6. Maintain your energy level: our brain requires energy and nutrients to function optimally. If you find that you cannot concentrate because you are feeling tired get up, stretch your muscles and move. This will help to stimulate your blood to circulate and reach your brain bringing oxygen and nutrients so that it can function well. This action will restore your ability to focus as you become more alert, and feel energised. Exercise will help to release the tension in your muscles. Why not go for a short walk to have some fresh air and enjoy viewing nature? These activities are known to improve our mood and restore energy (Ratey & Hagerman, 2009).
    7. Be creative: If you’re feeling stuck do something creative for a few minutes to stimulate your brain, and your imagination.
    8. Use the IF-THEN technique: Pre-plan what you will do when you get distracted (Steel, 2012). For example, if you know you tend to check the notifications you receive on your phone then decide to put your phone on silent, in a drawer (when in view it will be distracting and difficult to not pick it up). Or if you get interrupted by others decide in advance what you will say. For example, you may say you will join them in half an hour (or any specific time afterwards), or explain that you need to prioritise your assignment/revision. The hope is that your friends will understand that this is important t you, and agree to meet/go out at another time.
    9. Practice mindfulness techniques: these help to train our ability to concentrate by focusing on our breathing. This allows us to be in the present moment and letting thoughts go by.
    10. Persevere with your efforts, keep in mind that our brains are malleable and it is shaped by our experiences. This means that when you learn new things you are in effect strengthening your cognitive capacity (Arden, 2010).
      “It always seems impossible until it is done.” (Nelson Mandela)
      Even if the task seems endless, practise the strategies above and maintain your efforts. Although you may not be sure that progress is happening keep going, and eventually you will get it done.


Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. Vintage, London.

Arden, J. (2010). Rewire your brain. Think your way to a better life. John Wyley & Sons, Inc., New Jersey. 

Ratey,J.J. & Hagerman, E. (2008) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. Quercus, London.

Steel, P. (2012) The Procrastination equation. How to stop putting things off and star getting things done. Pearson, London.