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?
- Dr. Christina Hibbert: The key to worry-free
- Elsa support: Worry tree diagram
- GetSelfHelp: worry tree description and diagram
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.