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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

Make an Appointment to Worry

Setting aside a specific time to fret and express worries can ease your mind.

Did you know that just putting your worries into words and expressing them out loud or on paper (or your phone or computer) can start you on the path to feeling less anxious? In fact, researchers have found that setting aside blocks of time to record your worries (known as “worry time”) can lead to notable reductions in anxiety.

There are many reasons why this works. Anxiety can often be “free-floating,” which makes it difficult to manage. Simply expressing our anxious thoughts (whether verbally or by writing them down) helps us organize these concerns. Instead of floating freely in our brains, our worries are listed—which makes them much easier to tackle and examine objectively.

Setting aside a specific time and place to express our worry, further, gives us a sense of agency and control. Doing this involves making a conscious decision and taking action. Additionally, it can be incredibly comforting to know that an outlet is in place and on the books.

There are two key ways to make an appointment to worry:

  1. Via verbal expression (set up a time to vent to a friend, schedule or attend a therapy session).

  2. By setting aside quiet journaling time (this may not need to be scheduled and can be done when the mood strikes).

The most important part is that you let it out. Research shows that the act of putting your feelings into words can lower the level of arousal in the part of the brain that manages emotions and governs our responses to things that are upsetting. This area, known as the amygdala, lights up when we experience stress.

Talking about your problems actually quiets the amygdala, and that enables us to calm down and more logically work through stressful events and situations. Think about the last time you vented to someone you cared about. Didn’t you feel so much better after expressing your feelings and talking it out?

Scientists have also found that the act of writing down your thoughts and worries—journaling—has a similarly powerful cathartic effect. Specifically, putting your thoughts into writing makes a measurable difference in how you feel. While not a substitute for the personal interaction of therapy, journaling has proven to be an incredibly effective way to release some of your anxiety (and it is free and available immediately).

Studies show that writing about traumatic or stressful events makes people feel calmer, happier, and more at ease. The physical health benefits of expressive writing include things like improved immune system functioning (fewer colds!), reduced blood pressure (a longer life!), and fewer stress-related visits to the doctor.

Writing can provide a wonderful outlet to express unspoken thoughts without being judged. You may think, “I can’t write,” but the truth is that you likely have plenty of experience with writing—texting, emailing, blogging, live chatting, and tweeting are all writing exercises! The difference is that instead of public expression, journaling offers you a private and empowering forum to express your own personal truths.

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Feeling stressed? Make an appointment to worry. Instead of ruminating (obsessing about something) all day, put your worries on hold. Place them on an imaginary shelf. Decide exactly when you are going to air out your worries—first thing in the morning or end of day? Or perhaps when you actually have a free moment, or when a trusted friend or therapist is available.

If you feel reluctant to verbalize your anxiety, purchase a notebook or journal and do a “worry dump.” Observe your mood after this exercise, and notice the sense of relief afterwards. At minimum, you should notice that your jumbled thoughts are now more organized and that it feels good to take constructive action. You may even gain some clarity and insight.

Most of all—do not suffer in silence. Keeping anxious thoughts and feelings to yourself can be such a heavy burden. It requires effort to hold them back, and that puts a strain on the brain and the body. Employ the curative, cathartic strategy of venting. Make an appointment with yourself, or someone else, to worry—and stop rumination in its tracks.

Portions of this post have been excerpted from my book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.

Blog as published in Psychology Today on 3/9/23.


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