The Low-Tech Tool I Use to Wrangle Runaway Worries at Work

Worrying at work has its place. It means you care. It helps you avoid preventable mistakes. It’s even something Atomic values in job candidates.

But like anything taken too far, runaway worrying is more painful than productive. Over-worrying can rob you of joy, take you out of the present moment, stress out the people around you, and lead to burnout.

Low-tech Worry Wrangler

As a world-class worrier, I’ve learned to notice these bad signs and use the following questions to help stop stewing and get into a more productive, peaceful mindset. When I notice my mind spinning, I try to stop what I’m doing, grab a pen and a worry journal, and spend ~15 min asking myself — and writing down the answers to — these questions.

(Note: These questions are not my creation, but something I borrowed from a friend. I’m not sure if she was the originator, and I can’t find a clear source on Google. The questions are informed by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy processes. Hats off and all credit due to the person who thought these up!)

1. What was the situation in which you found yourself worrying? Who were you with? What were you doing? Where did it start? When did you feel it?

Often, worries show up in the shadowy, less-conscious parts of my mind. When I slow down enough to answer these questions thoughtfully, I often realize something about my environment set the stage for worry. Maybe I was heading into an important meeting. Or I was with someone who made me feel uneasy. Maybe the night before, I’d enjoyed a little more beer than usual, and that affected my mood. Or I compensated that morning with a little too much caffeine or too little food. Or my hormones were getting the better of me.

Understanding that the concern might emanate from circumstance more than the subject of the worry itself helps me gain perspective and create distance between myself and the fear.

2. How do you know you are worrying? Are you acting in a certain way? What feelings are you experiencing in your body?

When I observe myself with detached curiosity, I can begin to feel my heart racing or my stomach clenching. It’s easier to step off the rollercoaster of my spinning mind and physical reaction and, instead, observe the roller coaster from the ground.

If my worry leads me to snap at people or act in a social way I might regret later, this question also helps me check myself and prevent taking it out on those around me. This question also helps me notice when my thoughts are turning toward overly self-critical thinking.

3. Summarize what you are worried about. Can you categorize the worry (interpersonal, financial, existential, career-related, etc.)? Rate the intensity of the worry from 1-100.

I love that this question comes after I’ve taken the time with the former questions to check in on my circumstance and physical state. Often, when I am on the worry ride, I haven’t slowed down enough to even consider precisely what I am worried about. I will feel the creeping sensation of worry and let it carry me away, but I haven’t yet taken the time to consider what mushy thought is driving the reaction.

Answering this question helps me get specific. Usually, I find that I am worried about a potential outcome. Sometimes these are vague and discordant; sometimes the potential outcome is very specific. Writing it down is powerful because, on paper, I pluck the worry from the driver’s seat in my brain and nail it down to the page.

Categorizing and rating the worry also helps remove some of its power. This is also a great way to look back later and observe trends. Since I use a journal to store the worry, I can look back at these categories over time and notice any patterns that can give me more power over my worry train.

Is the worry about something happening now or something that could happen in the future?

I find that my worry is fixated on the future. I fixate less on what has happened or what is happening, and more on hypothetical situations. Part of the brain hijacking that comes from worry is that hypothetical situations feel more present and real than they are. Reminding yourself that a hypothetical is different from reality further deflates the concern.

What is the evidence supporting my worry? What is the evidence that it’s not warranted?

Here’s where it gets good. The prior questions helped you build some distance between you and your worry and enabled you to wrest some of its power. Now, with your worry weaker and distanced, you can scrutinize it with impartiality.

I answer these questions with bulleted lists. Often, considering the counter-case about why my worry might be less founded is surprisingly convincing. The exercise forces my brain to challenge the worry, which is not my go-to response. I’ve already deeply considered all the reasons my worry is founded and important, but the case against it is almost always stronger.

What can I do to address my worry now?

Like the last question, this one requires a mindset shift. If worrying feels like paralysis, this question makes me understand where I might have agency after all. Again, I try to brainstorm a bulleted list of all the things within my power to act to protect myself from the downsides of the dreaded outcome — or prevent it in the first place.

Can I reframe it?

The last question requires a third and final mental shift. Now that I’ve created some distance between myself and my worry, have I stopped to consider what it’s trying to tell me? For example, if I am afraid of a work project ending poorly, should I reframe that thought to consider that it means I care? Could it signify that I’m lucky to have a job where I’m engaged enough in the work to be emotionally invested in its outcome?

Or maybe I can use reframing to bring some gratitude to the fact that these are the things I worry about, instead of more dire concerns. In response to this question, I try on two or three new frames to interrogate my worry through.

Worry: Wrangled

If frequent worries disrupt you at work, I encourage you to give this ~15-minute exercise a shot next time you feel the worry wheels whirring.

Since I started this practice a couple of years ago, I’m better at catching the worry train before it runs off the tracks. Having the history of my responses to these questions also helps me bring some compassion to myself. With the distance of time, I see how I can get enveloped in worry about things that never come to pass, that in hindsight seem trivial, or that seem much more fueled by circumstance than reality. Just looking at the little journal on my desk is a reminder.

This exercise helps me understand the cost of worry that isn’t faced. And, when I stop to go through the questions, I feel less frenetic, more empowered, and less worried 100 percent of the time.


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