The Worry Tree Decision Tool

diagram of the worry tree tool

Fellow blogger Skinny Hobbit recently mentioned a technique I hadn’t heard of before, the worry tree, so I wanted to look into it a little more.

Worry is related to but not the same as anxiety. Worry is a thinking process that is focused around problems that may arise in the future, which can then generate feelings of anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder often has a significant worry component, but all of us worry at some time or another.

While anxiety often isn’t “about” something, worry is. That means that, in a sense, worry gives you something to latch onto, whereas anxiety is more nebulous. Because of that, it’s feasible to consider making a decision to put the worry off until another point in time.

The worry tree is a systematic way of working through worry. It’s based on the book Managing Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide (affiliate link) by psychologists Gillian Butler and Tony Hope.

Steps in the worry tree

1) The first step in the worry tree is noticing the worry and asking yourself what you’re worried about.

2) The next step is to decide whether the worry is a hypothetical situation or a current problem that you can actually do something about.

3. a) If the situation is hypothetical, the next step is to let the worry go and refocus your attention on something else.

3. b) If it’s a current problem, you then develop a detailed action plan covering who/what/when/where/why/how. Then decide if you are going to do it now or schedule it for later, and let the worry go.

Should you worry?

An easy thought trap to fall into is thinking that you should worry, because it will make you more prepared for whatever situation it is that you’re worried about. However, this gets you stuck either pondering a hypothetical problem or a problem that potentially could be acted on, but then just stewing in your mind over and over in that problem.

If you’re not getting to the stage of an action plan, or at least getting yourself closer to an action plan, your worrying is not helping you; it’s holding you back.

My own experience of worry

I’ve mentioned before that I get a rush of worry pretty much every night at bedtime. It’s fairly brief, and then my meds kick in and put me to sleep.  This has been going on for the past 2 or 3 years. The worry has to do with being able to support myself in the future. It’s not hypothetical in the sense that it’s not catastrophizing; there are certain challenges I am going to face in the future. But the worries don’t fall into the category of something I can do something about right now.

So sure, I can refocus (mostly in the form of going to sleep), but because the issue is reality-based, it doesn’t just go away. It’s always hovering somewhere overhead, and then pops down for a nightly visit The worry tree treats it as a hypothetical that I need to just let go, but it’s not an issue that’s going anywhere.

I do sometimes wonder if it’s become a conditioned response, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that I’m used to feeling worry at bedtime, so worry shows up right on cue. At the same time, because I’m so used to it I’m able to not get caught up in it.

Have you ever heard of or tried the worry tree? Is it something you would find helpful?


You can also find links to free anxiety and worry worksheets in the post Free Mental Health Workbooks.

The post Therapy Tools for Mental Health has more tools to support your mental health.

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

22 thoughts on “The Worry Tree Decision Tool”

  1. That’s the difficulty I think. You can worry about irrational things, determine them and put it to rest. When there is a plan that can be made for the future, that can help to do something and the plan will give you some rest. But the future is always uncertain and sometimes has some more realistic things in it: like how am I going to pay for things?

    I never had ‘big bucks’ and I’ve seen not fun times. I worried and worried until I realized that that wasn’t going to bring any money in the bank. So I stopped with that. Till this day, even without an income, I don’t worry about it. There is really nothing I can do at this point.

    I once burst into tears at the cash register because I couldn’t afford anything more.
    See, when you don’t worry, you cry in public. Always something to keep us busy!

    I do think conditioning has something to see with it, when you’re used to worry sometimes your mind doesn’t know how to not worry anymore. That is how it feels to me.

    1. If worry shows up, it tends to happen at bedtime. When you’re not actively doing something else, it can grab hold of you.
      The worry tree is a practical approach, logical…worrying isn’t.

  2. I’d never heard of the worry tree either. Then again, worries for me are often a combination of hypothetical-based and current problems. For example, a few days ago I was kept awake all night by worries about struggling at day activities. I do struggle, which makes it a current problem, but part of my worries are hypothetical.

  3. Hm, this is interesting. I hadn’t heard of the worry tree before either, but like your worries, mine kind of fall in between the categories of real and hypothetical. In my case, I am worried about layoffs that are coming at my workplace. Those layoffs are very real, and my team will likely be affected…but I don’t know for sure and can’t do much until it happens.

    1. Yeah for issues that are real but there’s not much that can be done about them, it may make logical sense that worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop.

  4. I have tried the worry tree, but I had similar problems working out what exactly counts as hypothetical. As you say, some problems are not imminent, but still very real and treating them as hypothetical indefinitely (or until something really goes wrong) is not always sensible.

  5. Tree in new to us. The what-to-do sounds familiar. We read a book that said to list our worries as they arise, let them go, and then visit them at the worry time (designated time of day you set). If it’s not a worry still when you get to worry time, you learn your hypothetical worries (at the hospital, ours were usually worried someone will break into the communal bathroom while we are on the commode). If it’s still a worry, then you plan to solve it.

    The key for us was identifying our myth that “worrying is productive.” We used to think that by worrying, we are “doing something” about the problem. Worry without action becomes rumination…(cue the “go to commercial” music)

  6. I like this idea of a worry tree. It helps you to put your worries into reality. I try my best to live in today. That way I try not to worry.

  7. I’d never heard of the worry tree before, this actually sounds really helpful, I will try it when the opportunity arises (kind of inevitable as i worry a lot so no doubt will be soon) 💚

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