What Is Worry? And How Do I Stop Worrying?


Stop worrying - photo of female worrying


Every so often we write a slightly longer article than usual, and recently our cognitive behavioural therapy clinics have received a much larger number of enquiries from people looking to stop worrying.  So we thought it would be a good idea to give a detailed explanation of what is worry and how to stop worrying…



What Is Worry?

Worry is more common than you might imagine.  Research has shown that around 38% of the population worry at least once a day.  With numbers like this, it is not surprising that it is an important subject to many people – especially as worry and feelings of anxiety tend to be very closely linked.

Often people use the words worry and anxiety interchangeably.  Whilst this makes sense (as the two often happen together), it is much more helpful to separate them.  When psychologists define worry they usually mean a process of thinking things over in the mind.

Three good rules of thumb that might help you identify worries are:

1) They tend to be ‘wordy’.  For example, ‘what will happen if I don’t pass the exam I am sitting tomorrow?’  Whereas emotions tend to have only one word that fully describes them.  For example ‘anxiety’.

2) They tend to have a ‘what if’ statement before them.  In the example above it would be possible to write the worry down as ‘what if, I don’t pass the exam tomorrow.’

3) They tend to be about things in the future.  For example things that haven’t happened yet, might happen or even things that may never happen at all.  Whilst it’s possible to have things on your mind that fit the first two points above (for example, ‘what if I had revised more for that exam’), thoughts that are focused on the past tend not to be worries, but might be something called rumination or negative automatic thoughts.  These types of thinking processes are less likely to make you feel anxious, but rather, tend to be associated with stress, low moods or depression.


Can Worry Be Harmful?

Many people can find themselves worrying about their worry.

This might seem like a strange concept but it is usually focused around the idea that continuing to worry will in some way be harmful.  In therapy sessions it is not unusual for people to share concerns that worrying will in some way increase their risks of physical problems such as heart attack or stroke, or that in some way worrying will make them ‘go mad’ or loose control.

The truth is that worrying can sometimes carry a large cost.  For example, it can make it difficult to enjoy life or concentrate on important things.  It can also have negative impacts on close relationships.  So although it is unlikely that worrying will cause you physical problems, it is likely to maintain psychological problems – even if it is simply falling into the cycle of worrying about the fact that you are worrying.


How Do I stop Worrying?

As we mentioned earlier, many people believe that worrying is uncontrollable or that they won’t be able to stop.  If you’ve been a lifelong worrier over a period of many years then it is not surprising that it might seem like a hard thing to stop worrying.  However there are a large number of things that you can do to help you stop worrying, and some of them are below.

We’ve put them down in an order that most people tend to find helpful, but you don’t have to try these techniques as they are written – any order can work.


1) Understand When You Are Worrying

Many people have no idea when they are worrying – it just seems to happen.  The best place to start if you want to stop worrying is to recognise when you are actually doing it.  You might want to try something like keeping a worry diary – a simple chart that has columns for ‘triggers’, ‘worries’ and ’emotions’.  As you are going through your day see if you can notice when you are worrying, by checking your thoughts against the 3 rules of thumb above.

Another good way to identify if you are worrying is to label your emotions and bring an awareness to times that you notice a rise in your anxiety levels.  If you are feeling more anxious suddenly then there is a possibility that you are also worrying.  Sometimes it can be a bit like the ‘chicken and the egg’ to work out if the anxiety came first, or the worrying.  But it’s usually the case that if you are worrying, then it is playing a significant part in keeping your anxiety high too at that moment in time.


2) Differentiate Between Practical Worries and Hypothetical Worries

Once you have a list of worries see if you can split them into two groups.  The first group we’ll call practical (or sometimes called actual) worries.  These are the things on your mind that require you to take some form of action.  For example a trigger might be receiving a bill from your credit card company, and the worry might be ‘what if I can’t pay the amount that I need to?’  Because this is a current situation you are faced with, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.  For this reason we’ll call it a practical worry.

Hypothetical worries are things where there is nothing that you can reasonably and practically do at that current time.  For example ‘what if my girlfriend finds someone else?’

The key thing here is to think about whether there is anything reasonable that you can do in the current moment.  In the hypothetical example above there might be many things you can do to reduce the possibility of your girlfriend finding someone else (for example take her on a long holiday, prevent her from meeting other men, checking up on her frequently etc), but these are unlikely to be things that are reasonable, because the consequences of them are likely to also be unpleasant or unhelpful to you or her.


3) Solve The Practical Worries

Remember we said that a large portion of the population worry at least once a day?  This is why…

Not all worry is unhelpful – the practical worries actually alert you to solving a very real problem.  So the important thing here is to clarify exactly what the problem to be solved is.  See if you can trace the worry back to a problem.  In the example above the problem might be something like ‘needing to deal with my credit card statement.’  Once you have clearly identified the current problem you are faced with, it is likely that you will need to make some decisions about how to solve it.  This should be a very practical process, in order to help prevent you from turning a practical problem into lots of further hypothetical ones.  Find out more on how to do this in another of our articles about how to make a decision.  Whilst this sounds like a simple thing to do, sometimes it can be useful to have a clear structure – especially if you are still trying to stop engaging in a string of hypothetical worrying.


4) Look At The Balance

Remember separating the practical and hypothetical worries apart?  You might have noticed that you have more of one type of worry than the other.  This is perfectly normal.  Often if you have more practical worries it it likely that you are in the middle of some big life changes or difficulties.  If this is the case then it is a good idea to keep an eye on your stress levels in order to manage stress as effectively as possible whilst things are difficult.  There are some basic stress management techniques in our article on dealing with ‘the day from hell‘.

If, however you find that you have more hypothetical worries on your list then this can tend to be associated more with issues such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and continuing to read the further ideas below might be helpful to you.


Putting It Another Way:

worry tree- diagram to help with worrying


The worry tree can be a useful visual way of teasing apart how to handle each type of worry.


Why Do I Worry?

As we said above, worry is a mixture of practical and hypothetical things that you explore in your mind.

It makes sense that if something needs practically solving you’ll think about it more.  This can be a really helpful thing to do if you are trying to solve a specific problem.  But the issues tend to come in when people use the same idea of thinking something over when it is in fact a hypothetical worry.

In essence they find that they are trying to practically solve a problem that doesn’t even exist yet – which unsurprisingly is a really hard thing to do!  After all, if the problem doesn’t exist, but you are trying to solve it anyway, how will you know when it is solved?!  This is one reason why worry can sometimes seem to spiral out of control.

Therefore one of the things that psychotherapists and psychologists often find is that people can worry about things in the hope of trying to find a solution that doesn’t exist.

Another reason people can worry, paradoxically is to try and reduce the amount of anxiety they feel.  This might seem like a strange thing to say, but think of it this way:  If something makes you feel anxious then you are likely to want to do something to avoid it in your mind.  For example, if someone has a phobia of spiders then they are likely to close their eyes, or try and think of other things in order to make their anxiety go away when they are faced with a spider.  Worry can act in a similar way.  If there is something that has triggered your anxiety, then by thinking around the subject in your mind it often provides a level of distraction that can reduce anxiety levels – CBT Therapists call this ‘cognitive avoidance strategies.’

One key psychologist (Michel Dugas) has completed a number of years research on why people worry, which has led to strong evidence showing that people who worry more tend to have a lower tolerance to having uncertainty in their lives.  The best way to imagine this is by thinking of situations or possibilities in which the outcome or result is unclear.  All of the hypothetical worries above have elements of uncertainty to them.

In the same way as people with physical allergies (such as nut allergies) experience large reactions in their bodies to only small amounts of the thing that they are allergic to (for example someone with a nut allergy having a big physical reaction to a small peanut), it is suggested that people with generalised anxiety disorder type symptoms tend to experience large reactions in the mind to potentially only small amounts of uncertainty.  In this case the large reaction is a feeling of anxiety that people try to reduce through worrying and thinking about the situation even more in order to try and make it seem more certain.  The downside to this of course if that, because there isn’t a practical problem to solve, they get exposed to more hypothetical worries which actually increases the amount of uncertainty they see in the situation!

One area Dugas suggests people with problematic worry explore is gradually increasing their tolerance to having uncertainty in their lives.  There are a number of ways to do this, but a great place to start is by writing down a list of activities you can do or be involved in where there are different amounts of uncertainty.  For example, trying a new food and being uncertain whether you will like it or not.  Or trying a new route to work and being uncertain if you have estimated the amount of time correctly.

By thinking of a number of these types of uncertain situations you can rank them in order from the least anxiety provoking, right through to the most anxiety provoking.  Gradually work your way through the list, whilst avoiding worrying or focusing on the outcome of the task as a way to slowly build up your own tolerance to uncertainty in your life.


What Help Can I Get to Stop Worrying?

There are some great resources out there to help you stop worrying.  A good place to start is trying out the ideas above and seeing how you get on.

If you need more help or information then some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy self-help books also provide a great option to find out more – for example, ‘Overcoming Worry’ by Mark Freeston, which provides a similar approach to the ideas above.

Your GP is also able to arrange a referral to a local NHS service for you, if this is likely to be helpful.  For problems such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is usually the recommended first treatment – before trying things like medication or other types of psychotherapy.

Another good place to get help is finding a local private Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.  Whilst fees to see a private therapist can be a little higher than options such as counselling, it is usually worth paying slightly more to get the right treatment.  This is especially important when you are working with worry, as it is not uncommon for counsellors (that often have a lower level of qualification and experience than BABCP accredited CBT Therapists) to actually invite clients to discuss their worries more in session, which is potentially a strategy that will make the problem even worse than it was before seeing them.



If you want to find out more, or are interested in treatment, why not contact us to find out how we can help?