You are worried about a litany of things, and it feels like these worries are pelting you in the head like balls from a pitching machine.
You are worried about your upcoming presentation. You are worried your house won’t sell. You are worried the weather will be terrible on your vacation. You are worried your daughter is upset with you. You are worried you said something offensive to your new colleague. You are worried you didn’t pay an important bill—or do something else that’s important. And you are worried about a hundred other things that you’re worried you won’t remember—or can’t forget.
Lynn R. Zakeri’s clients tend to worry about money and relationships. They tend to worry whether their kids are OK and whether they’re good enough. They tend to think “I have too much to do and not enough time,” or, the reverse: “I should be doing so much more than I am currently doing,” said Zakeri, LCSW, a therapist in private practice in the Chicago area whose passion is to help people figure out what’s wrong and help them feel better again.
Everyone worries. Some of us worry more than others. Some of us wake up worrying. Some of us fall asleep to the sound of worry bumping around in our brains.
This is when writing can help. A lot.
According to Sarah Allen, Ph.D., a Chicago-area clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety treatment, a typical worry process looks like this: We have a negative or scary thought about a situation. Our amygdala shouts “Emergency! Emergency!” and kick-starts various physical changes. It releases adrenaline, producing a stress response in the body—such as muscle tension, increased heartbeat, and faster breathing. The adrenaline also affects our mind, making our thoughts race, and travel like a merry-go-round, “building up a catastrophic story of what we tell ourselves is ‘true.’”
What writing does, Allen said, is to help us see in black and white exactly what’s bothering us. It allows us “to be more objective and not just believe everything [we] feel strongly about.”
Writing down our worries also helps to interrupt the worry cycle, said Sarah Neustadter, Psy.D, a clinical and spiritual psychologist based in Los Angeles, who specializes in spiritual growth, suicide survivor grief, suicide prevention, grief, loss, existential heartbreak, and millennial issues. It helps us see more clearly, to intentionally find other thoughts to think, and to reconnect to the present moment, she said.
“We can usually find that simply sitting with pen and paper, writing in this very moment as if it’s a form of meditation, makes everything OK,” Neustadter said.
There are so many ways we can use writing to cope with our worries. Below, you’ll find eight writing exercises to try.
Start a daily journaling practice. For Neustadter, author of the book Love You Like the Sky: Surviving the Suicide of a Beloved, journaling every morning helps her navigate her worrisome thoughts. “It allows me to be in conversation with myself, be my own best friend, and to see the variables of a problem or situation more clearly. And then through my writing, I’m able to problem solve and identify what actions steps I need to take. [I am also able to] self- soothe through positive self-talk and reassuring myself that all is well regardless of my worries.”
For instance, she might jot down the many tasks she’s worried about—remodeling her balcony because of water leaks, dealing with insurance, paying the construction bill, needing to get her mercury fillings replaced, planning an event, scheduling a trip to New York City for a month, and finding a house-sitter.
After jotting down her worries and frustrations, Neustadter asks herself these questions, and writes the answers that arise: “What is the priority here?” or “What do I need right now to feel supported?” “I also reassure myself that everything will get done in the right time, and I only need to do one thing at a time.”
Distinguish between useful worry and unhelpful worry. “A lot of worries are about the future and writing them down identifies whether they are ‘what-if’ type of worries that probably won’t really happen, or something that has a potential solution,” Allen said.
That is, she noted that worry can be useful and spark action, which she calls “active or useful worry.” However, all-too often, we worry about things that can’t be changed or aren’t even a real problem—“just a scary, imagined ‘what-if’ that rarely even happens.”
Allen suggested putting all your worries on paper—“no matter how small or silly it sounds.” Then ask yourself these questions, she said: “Is this something I always worry about, but nothing ever happens?” “Will my worrying make this situation better or worse or have no effect at all?”
Split worries into what you can and can’t control. Similarly, Zakeri suggested folding a piece of paper lengthwise. On one side, write the worries that you have control over (e.g., “I’m worried my husband is mad at me.” You can talk to your husband and resolve the issue). On the other side, write the worries that you don’t have control over (e.g., “I’m worried it’ll rain on Saturday”).
Refocus on realistic solutions. When Tyra Manning would get stuck in a worry loop, she learned to write down her fears and feelings on the page. “As I contemplated each item I had written, I wrote a hopeful and realistic response to each worry listed.” For instance, when Manning’s husband was killed in Vietnam, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to support their young daughter. She worried she couldn’t afford to pay a sitter and pay her college tuition.
So Manning, an educator and author of the forthcoming book Your Turn: Ways to Celebrate Life Through Storytelling, wrote down a realistic, detailed budget that she could follow (and did).
She also worried that she “couldn’t provide enough love much less spend enough time” with her daughter because of the “endless hours” she was spending on completing her college degree. Again, she turned to writing, creating a schedule for her and her daughter to savor the weekends. These weekend outings strengthened their bond and, most importantly, Manning said, her daughter “knew she was loved.”
Consider these three categories. Zakeri also suggested creating three different columns: Need, Want, and Should. Then cross off the shoulds because they can wait. She shared this example: You need to pick up your child from school. You want to grab a snack with them. But you should skip the snack, and go to the drycleaners. Unless you need that suit tomorrow, the drycleaners can wait.
Keep paper and a pen on your nightstand. If you’re having trouble falling asleep because of your worries, jot them down, Zakeri said. She noted that this accomplishes two things: “It empties your head, and it reassures you won’t forget whatever it is that was keeping you up.”
Make an A and B list. This is another way to clarify your priorities, and get organized. According to Zakeri, A represents the non-negotiable tasks you’re worried about that must be accomplished today. B represents the worries that can wait until tomorrow. “Knowing they are ‘on your list’ can be relieving, but also knowing you are not focusing on them until A list is done can be relieving.”
Create a gratitude list. “In order to remind myself that all is well and of the blessings in my life, I’ll often make a list of the things I’m grateful for,” Neustadter said. “By seeing a list of the things that are working in my life, it allows me to refocus and prioritize what really matters, and thus reduces my worry.” For instance, her list might include everything from flowers and birds chirping to her health and family to running water and shelter.
Our worrisome thoughts can feel big, urgent, and uncontrollable. As Manning said, it can feel like we’re “getting caught in a whirlpool.” While we might not be drowning physically, we’re drowning in negative chatter, she said.
Even though our worries can feel overwhelming, we can shrink them. We can channel them into solutions—or we can reveal them for what they are: unhelpful, unreasonable, and illogical.
The key is to know the difference.
When Manning struggled to come up with positive responses to her worries, she turned to the Serenity Prayer.
“It became my mantra when I got sober through the good graces of members of my support group. They told me to say it five times out loud and if that didn’t work to start over. When I said the words out loud, it caused me to think about what I was saying. When I contemplated the meaning of the prayer, my brain couldn’t hold my worries in my head,” Manning said.
And, over time, the below words spoke louder than her worry:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.”