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Managing worry over an unsolvable problem

When we don’t have the power to solve a problem, worry is unproductive, and it can rob us of our joys. Like a car stuck in mud with its tires spinning, we sink deeper into worry and don’t move forward. When we feel this kind of worry, the best strategy is to break this worry cycle. Here, we recommend four strategies to interrupt this cycle.

STAND Tip: Managing a solvable problem

Stay present, stay mindful

Worrying means our minds are focused on the future, on things that might go wrong that we have no way of predicting. Time that could be spent feeling enjoyment or being productive is lost to worry. But focusing on the present moment can break a worry cycle — you might know this as mindfulness.

STAND Tip: How to get present

Mindfulness practices like this one help us stop worrying about what could happen in the future by turning our attention to the present. Many activities can keep us in the present, including exercise, hobbies, watching or reading something interesting, or even doing household chores.

On your own: Make a list of the activities that take your mind off your worries, try our mindfulness exercise or try the free guided meditations offered by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Shift your focus to the solvable

Focusing on what we can control can break a worry cycle. When you feel overcome by worry, try the creating a Special Projects list of things that you would like to get done and keep it in a fixed place. List specific, do-able tasks, such as “clean out my T-shirt drawer.” The Special Projects list is meant to give us a sense of satisfaction. Avoid overly difficult or deadlined tasks The items on our to-do list help us to stop worrying about the future by absorbing us in meaningful activities in the present.

When you start to worry, notice the worry and consult your Special Projects list. Pick an item on the list that you can start right away, and, when you finish, cross the task off your list and congratulate yourself for finishing it. If you can’t finish right now, give yourself credit for starting the task and return to it later. Crossing something off our “Special Projects” list can give us a sense of accomplishment and remind us of what we can control right now.

On your own: Make a list of Special Projects that you might start when you need to shift your focus

Seek silver linings

Worry draws our attention to the negative, since we rarely worry about good things happening in the future.

To break the cycle of focusing on the negative, we recommend finding silver linings in even the worst situations to reduce our worry and lighten our mood.

For example, a problem can reframe our thoughts. Maybe insert rhetorical questions like: Has this new situation offered new perspective? More time for ourselves? A chance to be in a new place or meet new people?

On your own: Find the silver linings fillable activity sheet

Schedule set time to worry

For some of us, worrying can become such a strong habit that it is very hard to stop. When this happens, take control of our worry by putting some structure around it. A little bit of worry isn’t harmful, but it can be helpful to put some stop and start rules to it — in other words, scheduling specific “worry time.”

  1. Pick a time of day when you normally have 15-30 minutes for yourself and set aside that time as dedicated “worry time.” It’s helpful to do this late in the afternoon.
  2. Whenever you notice yourself worrying, decide if the worry can be solved or if it’s outside of your control (as we did in the exercise above).
  3. If the problem can be solved, use the problem-solving STAND Strategy (above). If the problem is outside of your control, put the worry aside until your scheduled worry time, and go back to what you were doing. Repeat this process whenever you start to worry.
  4. Begin your scheduled “worry time” by writing down your worries — those you are feeling in the moment and those you felt earlier in the day. Notice whether your worries are the same.
  5. At the end of the scheduled “worry time” think about how it went. Did you solve any of the problems you were worrying about? Did worrying about them make your mood better or worse?

Setting aside “worry time” can help us be more productive and engaged during the day. It also can help us see how worrying usually fails to solve our problems and instead just makes our mood worse.

On your own: Set your own worry time

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet

5 Strategies for Managing Worries

Managing Anxiety & Fear

Recovering from Trauma & Grief

Pre-Work Lists

Engaging Activities

Special Projects

How-to Guides

Mindfulness Exercise

Shift Focus to What You Can Control

Fillable Activity

Schedule 'Worry Time'

Problem-Solving Worksheet

Find Silver Linings