Worries can come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more specific to our daily lives (e.g., “I need to find childcare for my son before I start work next month”) while others are more general and ambiguous (e.g., “everything seems so uncertain”). A key characteristic of worry is that it is future-focused. That is, the worry is concerning something that might happen in the future.
Everyone worries to a certain extent. However, worry becomes a problem when it begins to consume our lives. In fact, worry is a key characteristic in generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worry thoughts. One way to determine whether your worry thoughts are a little too strong, is to ask yourself: “if someone else was in my situation, would they be just as worried as me? Do I worry more than most people would in the same situation?”. If the answer is yes, then this article might be for you!
Types of Worries
When it comes to worry, it is first important to determine the type of worry you are experiencing. This is because the solution to the worry differs depending on the type of worry. There are two primary types of worry that I’ll talk about in this post: productive worry and unproductive worry.
Productive worries tend to be:
Unproductive worries tend to be:
- far in the future
- has no solution or does not require an immediate solution
To further elaborate, productive worries are usually worries requires a specific action step to resolve and is something you need to act on in the near future. For example, if you are hosting a dinner party of 15 and you are running out of food, then a productive worry might be: “I will not have enough food for my guests”. This requires a solution (buying groceries) to a problem (not enough food).
On the other hand, unproductive worries tend to be much further away in the future and may not have a current solution (or does not require an immediate solution). For example, a young lad might be overly worried about what his hobbies are going to be once he retires. This is more of a case of an unproductive worry because it’s so far in the future!
Problem-Solving for Productive Worries
Once you have identified whether your worry is productive or unproductive, you can now choose the right strategy. Productive worries require a problem-solving approach. The steps to doing a problem-solving worksheet are here.
1. Identify the problem. Here, you write down what the problem is: “I have to go back to work on Monday and I haven’t secured childcare for my son yet”.
2. Identify the solution. In many cases, this is simply the logical counterpart to step 1: “I need to find childcare before Monday”.
3. Brainstorm as many solutions as possible. In this step, we are simply writing down as many ideas as possible without judgment. Examples include “I can contact my sister and ask her to see if she can take of my son”, “I can look into a daycare near me”, “I can ask my husband to quit his job so he can be the primary caregiver”, “I can look into local babysitters”. As you can see, some solutions might be better than others from a brief inspection – but we are still going to be non-judgmental here.
4. Write out the pros and cons of each solution. On two different columns, write down what the positives and negatives of each potential solution might be.
5. Choose the best solution. Once you have evaluated the different pros and cons, now you make a decision and choose what seems like the best solution to your problem.
6. Carry out the plan! In some cases, you might realize your solution requires a few steps of its own (e.g., picking out a daycare and not knowing which is the best one). In that case, a similar approach can be used to problem-solve. It’s like doing a problem-solving worksheet inside a problem-solving worksheet!
7. Reflect on how effective the solution was. Did the strategy I chose work? If so, great! You no longer have a problem. If it didn’t solve the solution, then one thing you can do is to evaluate whether the next best strategy might be helpful. In this case, you can move down the list and see if the alternative strategies give you more bang for your buck.
Cognitive Strategies for Unproductive Worries
If your worries are more unproductive in nature, then cognitive strategies can be a great way to tackle unhelpful thoughts. I have written about the steps to using thoughts records in another article. Check it out!
Surprise Pop Quiz!
Just in case you have been mindlessly skimming through this post, here is a surprise pop quiz on determining whether the worries presented below are productive or unproductive. I’ll put the answers below (no peeking!).
1. A man has an important presentation for his work next week that will determine his salary for the upcoming fiscal year. He is worried that he has not prepared enough for the presentation. Productive or unproductive?
2. A woman who is 6-months pregnant with her first child has been experiencing a lot of anxiety about the health of her baby. She ate a piece of salmon sashimi yesterday with her friends and is now worried that the additional mercury in her bloodstream might impact the development of her baby. Productive or unproductive?
3. A six-year old boy is wondering if he will ever find love. Productive or unproductive?
4. A grad student believes that one of their supervisors is being excessively harsh on her dissertation proposal feedback. She is worried that the supervisor’s evaluation might impact her ability to successfully defend her dissertation and graduate on time. Productive or unproductive?
1. Productive. In this case, the man’s concern about the presentation is immediate and there is a solution (i.e., to practice and prepare his slides for the presentation).
2. Unproductive. The woman’s concern for their baby’s welfare is well-justified and can be productive when generally considering dietary habits. In this specific instance, however, the worry is a bit more unproductive because the event has already happened. Moreover, the likelihood that mercury poisoning could occur because of her enjoying a single sashimi piece is low.
3. Unproductive. The young boy has years ahead of him to form healthy and long-lasting romantic relationships. This period of development is probably better spent wondering if he wants to go to the park or have a sleepover with his friend, Tom.
4. Productive. The grad student’s concern is valid and requires a solution. For example, finding and talking with an advisor, or having a discussion with her primary supervisor.
Congratulations on completing the quiz! You are now a master of differentiating between types of worry and knowing how to tackle them.
I hope this was helpful in your mental health journey. If you know of other worriers that these strategies might benefit, feel free to share with them!
I also have a post on different types of relaxation strategies if that is of interest! For nighttime worries affecting sleep, see this post on creating worry logs.