Scheduled worry time is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique that helps reduce anxiety. Used alongside mindfulness it can help us to learn how to ‘worry more effectively’. Everyone worries from time to time and we generally don’t have immediate control over this. Whether it’s undesirable future events or things that happened in the past, some of us have a tendency to worry about things more than is helpful. Excessive worry can be accompanied by physical and psychological symptoms. We may experience muscle tension, fatigue, and insomnia, or feelings of dread, anxiety and in some cases, depression.
How do we stop worrying?
The truth is that we may never be able to completely stop worrying. However, we can develop control over how we deal with our worries when we experience them. We can learn to worry more effectively. This is where ‘scheduled worry time’ comes in.
The time is scheduled for the sole purpose of considering what is causing us to feel anxious, nervous or concerned. At first, this technique may seem both difficult and counter-intuitive. However, with persistent practice, it can help us to significantly reduce the level of worrisome thoughts.
How does SWT work?
Scheduled worry time is a three-part process:
1) Worry awareness – Recognising when we experience worrying thoughts through mindfulness.
2) Worry delay – Acknowledging those worrying thoughts and placing them ‘on-hold’ to be dealt with later.
3) Worry time – Re-engaging with those worrying thoughts at the scheduled worry time and attempting to work through them one at a time.
Step 1: Worry awareness
The first step is to recognise and ‘label’ our worrying thoughts. This process is called mindfulness and involves us being aware of what is happening in the present moment – in this case, noticing our worrying thoughts. The more we intentionally try to notice our thoughts, the easier the process will become. It is important to remember that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves if at first we don’t notice that we’re caught in a ‘worrying cycle’. As mentioned previously, this process takes practice.
Once we become aware that we are worrying, we try to accept this. We try not to judge ourselves for worrying. Rather, we try to acknowledge the fact that we noticed, that we were mindful of the experience of worry.
Step 2: Worry delay
Once we are aware of our worrisome thoughts, the next step is to try to place the worrisome thoughts ‘on-hold’. That is, we disengage from our worry until a later scheduled time. At this point, it can be helpful to make notes to remind us what the thought was. If you feel confident, you can simply remember the nature of the worrying thought.
This is perhaps the hardest step. We often feel that by worrying, we will solve or stop the worry. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. What usually happens is we become caught in a ‘worry cycle'; we ruminate.
This is where we use mindfulness. We notice, acknowledge and accept our worrisome thoughts. We then try to delay worrying until our scheduled worry time. As mentioned above, this is the hardest part. Sometimes we feel the urge to worry. Sometimes by not worrying we may begin to feel anxious. Try to remember, this takes practice. Try to notice the feelings that come up when you delay your worrying. Try to notice how they make you feel. Are you able to sit with them?
Step 3: Worry time
The third step is to use the scheduled worry time. This is the assigned time (perhaps around 20 minutes or so) during which we allow ourselves to go over all the worrisome thoughts that we put on-hold throughout the day. We try to consider each of the worries one by one, trying to understand why they arose and noticing how they feel after we’ve revisited them.
Scheduled worry time helps us in three ways. It helps us become more mindful of the way we think, it shows us that we’re able to sit with any anxiety that delaying our worries may bring up; and most importantly, it allows us to notice that what we thought were insurmountable worries are often not really that big of a deal.
Of course, there may be times when our worries are in fact as troublesome as we originally experienced them. In these cases, we may need to make plans to take actions, such as actively preparing for a future situation or talking with a trusted friend or colleague. If a worry is persistent and concerning, mental health practitioners are also a good port of call.
It needs to be emphasised that this technique only works with practice (and patience). Just as we can’t expect ourselves to be piano virtuosos the first time we sit down at a piano, similarly, we need time to retrain how we worry. Learning to recognise our worries and thoughts take practice. Change will probably not happen overnight. With practice, we can learn to worry more effectively.