Dial back worry

Reduce worry and self-blame to improve your wellbeing

Many research studies have shown that the way we think about what is happening in our lives makes a difference to how we cope and our wellbeing. In particular, we know that using optimistic thinking (e.g. saying to yourself, “This is tough now, it will get better in time”) can help us cope with tough times and bounce back from them.

A recent large study of more than 30,000 people in the UK has shown that how much people worry and dwell on things (rumination), and how much people blame themselves when things go wrong (self-blame), ramp up the negative consequences of other stress factors (like loneliness or low income). An important implication of this study is that if we can dial back worry and self-blame when things are difficult, we can reduce at least some of the negative impact of such stresses on our health and wellbeing.

How do we do the dial back?

1. Psychologist Sara Tai from the University of Manchester in the UK has described one effective strategy as: “Catch it, check it, change it”.

  • Catch it. First, notice what you are thinking. It’s often easier to notice a change in how you are feeling (from happy to sad, for example) as a clue to catch your thinking. So, when you notice a feeling change, or when you notice that you’re doing something you don’t want to (maybe being irritable, or eating too much), pay attention to what is going through your mind.
  • Check it. Then, check out if this thinking is helpful for you (helping you cope) or is how you are feeling affecting how you are thinking (feeling tired and therefore thinking critical things about yourself, for example)?
  • Change it. Lastly, have a go at telling yourself something different, kinder and less worrying. If this is hard, ask someone you trust to help you generate some alternatives.

2. Another strategy is to use mindfulness. Try this practice exercise next time you are noticing negative thoughts:

  • Position yourself so that you are sitting in a comfortable but upright, alert manner. Place your feet flat on the floor and notice where they make contact with the ground.
  • Draw your attention to what is going on for you right now, any sensations in your body, what thoughts going through your mind, what feelings are going round… Not trying to change them or move away from them but just noticing and acknowledging them.
  • Now, narrow your focus on your breath and the sensations of breathing, noticing with great detail the sensation of breathing. Continue for a few moments.
  • Then expand your attention to any thoughts that are going around in your mind. Notice their content without engaging with them or following them. Minds like to follow thoughts, so notice when this happens and then return to observing the thoughts as they come and go. Notice any change in your body sensations or feelings as you pay attention to your thoughts and notice them passing.
  • Now return your attention to your breath and the sensations of the breath as you inhale and exhale. Then, once again feel your feet on the floor and the sensation of your body sitting alert and upright.

Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E., & Tai, S. (2013). Psychological processes mediate the impact of familial risk, social circumstances and life events on mental health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24146890.


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