THE BLOG

Coping With Chronic Worry

11/07/2013 01:10 pm ET

Worries are a fact of life. We all have thoughts like these: "Am I going to be late for a meeting?" "Should I accept this job offer?" "Did I eat too much?" "Is Mary angry with me?" "Am I on track for getting an A in this class?" and "Did I plan enough time for my husband and I to spend together on our trip?"

The fact is that worrying can be a useful activity: A student who worries about doing well on an exam is more likely to study than a student who doesn't worry at all. Worries indicate you are invested in something, and they can motivate you to work toward your goal. Fortunately for most people, when worrying is unhelpful or interferes with their lives, they can usually put it aside.

But some people have worries that are incessant, pervasive, intrusive, unproductive -- and difficult to turn off. Their worries are present from the moment they wake up until last minute of their day. This type of chronic worrying can negatively affect their daily functioning.

When this happens, it may be a disorder called GAD, or generalized anxiety disorder. Their worrying persists even when there is very little or no cause for worry. Many chronic worriers also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, hypertension, back pain, and other physical symptoms.

If chronic worrying is a problem for you, here are three things you can do to cope outside of your therapist's office:

1. Train yourself to worry about a one thing at a specific time each day. If your worries pop up at any other time, gently remind yourself, "I'll think about this at 4:30 p.m." When that time arrives, think about your one worry.

2. Determine if your worry is productive or unproductive. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do in the next hour (or the next few hours, the next day) to address it. If so, great! If not, make a conscious effort to put it on the shelf. If you find yourself worrying about an exam you already took, put your worry aside. Tell yourself that you can't do anything about it so worrying isn't helpful right now. Then decide what you can do instead that will be more useful. Go for a walk, go to the gym, call a friend, etc.

You should know that your worry will jump from the shelf into your lap over and over again. Just don't let it lie there; make yourself put it on the shelf again and again.

3. Learn mindfulness meditation and practice it daily. It will allow you to develop a different relationship to your thoughts and worries. Rather than reacting to worries as if they are reality, you will observe and be aware of them without letting the emotional content suck you in. Take five minutes each day to focus on something neutral such as your breathing or sounds, while staying aware of the worries that tug at your concentration. If your awareness drifts away from your "anchor," notice where it goes and gently redirect your awareness back to the breathing or sounds. This trains your mind to remain aware when your worries begin to creep in and to let them go.

If you treat your worries as habits that you can train or as activities to limit, you can "get out of your head" and live your life more fully. Learn more about the symptoms of GAD, as well as treatment options or how to locate a therapist on the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): visit www.adaa.org.

For more by Kathariya Mokrue, PhD, click here.

For more on stress, click here.