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
- 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).
- Mind Reading: Thinking that we know what others are thinking about us/our actions.
- Maximising negative consequences: anticipating an exaggerated/catastrophic outcome
(eg. Not passing assignment = failing degree = others disappointed).
- 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).
- Fortunetelling: anticipating failure in the future, or negative situations.
- 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. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Leahy, R.L. (2006) The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living. New York: Piatkus.
Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.