Setting Aside Time to Worry

by Site Author

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The image above comes from a Japanese advertisement for an antidepressant. The picture captures what it’s like to go through a tough time. On the outside, you might appear calm, but on the inside, a storm is brewing.

That storm throws most people for a loop. What do you do when you can’t stop thinking about something? Some thought—a bit of anger, a worry, grief—just keeps coming back, over and over again. You push it out of your mind, and then it comes right back. What do you do?

A team of psychologists at Penn State University came up with a novel treatment for such a problem. The treatment they designed was paradoxical. They asked patients to seek out the thoughts that they would normally try to avoid.

It went something like this. Patients were told to set aside thirty minutes each day—thirty minutes at the same time and same place each day. The psychologists then asked the patients to spend those 30 minutes worrying. They were told to worry about their future, about their health, about their families. The patients spent those thirty minutes solely thinking unpleasant thoughts.

The psychologists also had instructions for worries that came up outside of those thirty-minute sessions. When that happened, the patients were to postpone the worries to the next session. So if a patient started worrying in the middle of the day, they made a note of the worry, so that they could come back to it later, during the next session.

And what happened? The intervention worked! The participants—as compared to a randomized control—ended up facing a lot fewer worries in their daily life. At first, their thirty-minute sessions were filled with worry. But, eventually, the sessions became boring, because they ran out of worries. And outside of the sessions, the participants found themselves with fewer unpleasant thoughts than they had before. More recent replications of the experiment have led to similar, encouraging results. It seems that paradoxical interventions like this one really work.

Psychologists can only speculate as to why the intervention works. One view is that the thirty-minute worrying sessions amounted to exposure therapy. After being exposed to all those worries for so long, the worries were no longer, well, worrisome. Once you’re thoroughly familiar with a thought, it loses its hold on you; it becomes boring.

Another view is that the sessions were really about changing how people approach unwanted thoughts. The patients were told to postpone their worrying, rather than to suppress their worrying. And perhaps it is the suppression of worry that’s the problem. Suppressing thoughts, after all, makes them more likely to return.

Either way, these kinds of interventions suggest how we should approach that inner storm. There’s an old Chinese proverb: “you cannot prevent the birds of worry and care from flying over your head. But you can stop them from building a nest in your head.”