Unproductive Worry, Productive Worry and Problem Solving

Why do we worry so much, when it usually just leaves us even more anxious, and stressed and overwhelmed? Well worrying feels a lot like problem solving. And sometimes worrying can actually be productive, and lead to solutions to our problems, and as a result, reduce our anxiety.

But most of the time worry is unproductive. Instead of identifying a tangible problem to solve, we’re just trying to think our way out of feeling anxious. We’re not worrying about a specific problem in the here and now. We’re using worry to try to solve problems that have no solution, and to control things that are outside of our control. And so this type of worrying doesn’t get us anywhere. We just end up stuck in our heads with our minds racing, feeling even more anxious.

Unproductive Vs Productive Worry and Problem Solving

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

When we’re concerned or anxious or apprehensive about something we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about it. And often this thinking takes the form of worrying, which makes sense, because when we worry we’re trying to figure out a way to prevent potential threats or negative outcomes from happening and to be as prepared as possible in the event that they do occur. Now sometimes worry can actually be productive and it’s focused on identifying problems that we can take action on now and then coming up with solutions to these problems.

But usually when we worry it’s completely unproductive, because we’re focused on problems that just don’t have a solution. And we just go over these potential threats and negative outcomes in our heads, getting nowhere because there’s nowhere to get: the questions we’re worrying about don’t have an answer. But we’re desperate to find one, so we just keep worrying and hoping we can figure something out. And even if we decide that we don’t want to worry anymore, we continue to worry because once our minds start racing with worries, at this point it can seem almost impossible to stop.

So what makes a problem or question we’re worrying about unsolvable or unanswerable? Often it’s because we just don’t have enough information to be able to solve the problem or answer the question, and we don’t have any way of gathering the information we’d need in order to be able to answer it. For example, if we’re worried, “i wonder if i embarrassed myself last nigh,t what does everyone think of me?”Well we can’t read minds so we can’t answer that question.

Now maybe in some situations we could seek reassurance and ask someone who is there if we embarrassed ourselves, but how do we know they’re not just being nice to us and telling us what we want to hear? So in the end we still don’t have the information we need in order to be able to answer the question we’re worrying about.

Or maybe we’re worrying. Am i going to blow my presentation next week? Well we can’t answer that question, because unless we can see into the future there’s just not enough information available.

So after we’ve worried unproductively about an unanswerable question for a while, we can often turn these questions into what-ifs, and we start trying to solve hypotheticals. What if i embarrassed myself last night? What if i blow my presentation? What ifs are perhaps the most common way we worry. What if this bad thing happens? Or what if this other bad thing happens? Or what if that happens? What if? What if? What if? What if?

When we feel that things or events are outside of our control and we’re facing a lot of uncertainty, what-ifs are a way of trying to gain some control, by thinking about all of the bad things that could possibly happen, and then trying to come up with a solution for each one, so that no matter what happens we have a plan ready to go. The problem is there’s no end to the number of possible bad things we can imagine, so every time we answer one what if, instead of this giving us some relief, a new what if just pops up in its place.

Or if we don’t find an answer to a what if, this leads to an escalating chain of what-ifs, each one more catastrophic than the last. My partner’s late getting home and isn’t answering my calls or texts. What if something happened to them? What if they got in an accident? What if they’re in the hospital? What if they’re really hurt? What if they’re dead?

Or what if i mess up my presentation next week? What if i lose my job? What if i can’t find another job? What if i run out of a savings? What if i can’t afford my rent?

So how can we tell whether our worrying is productive or unproductive? Well it comes down to whether we’re worrying about a solvable problem, in which case our worrying can be productive and we can transition into problem solving; or an unsolvable problem, in which case our worrying is unproductive.

Now there are three questions we can ask ourselves to determine whether or not a problem is solvable. Is this problem plausible or reasonable? Is this problem something i have some control over? And can i do something about this problem now? And if the answer to all of these questions is yes, then we quickly move from worrying about the problem to finding solutions to the problem and engaging in problem solving.

And if the answer to any of these questions is no we, can then see if there’s any way we can reframe the problem in order to make the answer yes, and then see if we can get through the rest of the questions also with yes and end up at the problem-solving stage.

But if we’re unable to reframe our unproductive worry and unsolvable problems as something productive and solvable, then the final step is to accept that our worry is unproductive, because we’re trying to solve a problem that has no solution, and so the only productive thing we can do is to find a way to stop worrying about it. And there are a number of strategies we can try to help allow ourselves to do this.

One is to just let go of our worries, which is often easier said than done, but i have a couple of videos with tips that can help. Another is to distract ourselves long enough to disrupt that stream of worries that’s racing through our minds, and this is often most effective when it involves some sort of physical exercise, which can really help us get out of our heads for a while.

We can also try meditating, or doing a relaxation exercise, and it can help to use something guided as the instructions give us something to focus on other than our own thoughts. And other options are to postpone our worrying, or to use a worry record, which is a type of thought record geared to worry, and i have videos that explain how to use these strategies.

So let’s look at some examples. So if we’re worrying, did i embarrass myself last night? Or what do people think of me? We ask ourselves: is this problem plausible or reasonable? Well sure it’s possible we embarrassed ourselves last night, so that is plausible or a reasonable thing to worry about.

So then we move on to the next question: is this something i have some control over? Well no it already happened so we don’t have any control over whether or not we embarrassed ourselves last night. Okay but can we reframe this problem as something we have some control over? Well no there’s really no way to have control over something that happened last night, so this problem is unsolvable and worrying about it is unproductive so we need to find a way to let it go.

I’m worried my presentation next week isn’t going to go well. Is that plausible or reasonable? Sure if i don’t prepare for my presentation it probably won’t go that well. And is it something i have control over? Well i have at least some control over it, the more i prepare for the presentation the more likely it’s going to go well.

And can i do something about this now? If it’s three in the morning, then no probably not. But if it’s during the day, then instead of worrying about it, i can move on to problem solving and start working on my presentation.

But if the worry is, what if i blow my presentation? Well that may not be that plausible or reasonable. But even if it is, and it is something we have some control over, the presentation isn’t until next week. So what if i blow my presentation deals with the future hypothetical that we can’t do anything about right now because it hasn’t even happened yet.

But we can reframe it into a problem that we can do something about now. I’m worried i’m going to blow my presentation next week. And now it becomes a solvable problem. We already looked at what can i do to prepare for my presentation and make it less likely that i blow it. And then we transition into problem solving and start working on our presentation.

Now let’s say we notice a bump on our skin and we start worrying, i wonder if this is something i need to be concerned about. So that’s a reasonable worry.

So the next question is, is this something i have some control over? Well we don’t really have control over whether or not it’s something to be concerned about, but we do have the ability to find that information. And can we do something about this problem now? Well yes we can either call the doctor to set up an appointment, or if their office is closed, we can make a note to set up an appointment tomorrow.

But if our worry is, what if this is cancer, well that’s really not that plausible or reasonable to be thinking about at this stage. So maybe we can reframe it as, i wonder if this is something that needs medical attention. And is this something we have control over? Well no we don’t have control over whether or not this bump on our skin needs medical attention. But we do have control over whether or not we find out if this bump needs medical attention. And we can do something about this now by calling the doctor to set up an appointment. And so we’ve moved on to the problem solving stage.

But once we set up the appointment there’s a good chance we’ll keep worrying about it until we see the doctor, and then maybe even keep worrying until we get some test results back. But these worries concern things that are outside of our control and that we can’t do anything about now. And so worrying about them is completely unproductive and instead we need to employ some strategies to calm our worries.

And if we’re worried that our partner has gotten into an accident, well that isn’t really plausible or reasonable: people are late all the time and nothing’s happened to them. So can we reframe this as a problem that’s plausible or reasonable? Well probably not. But even if we could it’s still not going to be something we have any control over, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it now. So our worry is completely unproductive and we need to focus on strategies to reduce our worrying.

So whenever we find ourselves worrying, first we want to determine whether or not our worry is productive or unproductive by asking ourselves these three questions. And if it’s productive we want to transition as quickly as we can into problem solving. And if our worry is unproductive and we’re not able to turn it into something productive, then we want to engage in some strategies to reduce our worrying. And you can find my videos on these topics on my site selfhelptoons.com along with a productive or unproductive worry worksheet.

If our worry is productive, we want to transition to problem solving, which is the topic of the next post. Then, once we look at problem solving strategies, we’ll learn to manage our unproductive worry with mindfulness and CBT techniques that reduce worrying and anxiety.

You can download the Productive vs Unproductive Worry Worksheet in PDF or Word format. If you have any questions or comments about this post, please leave them on the YouTube video page.