Planning 'Worry Time' May Help Ease Anxiety

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For those concerned with shedding some of their anxieties, it seems planning a certain time every day to worry may be a useful strategy. When people with adjustment disorders, burnout or severe work problems used techniques to confine their worrying a single, scheduled 30- minute period each day, they were better able to cope with their problems, a new study by researchers in the Netherlands finds. The study made use of a technique, called "stimulus control," that researchers have studied for almost 30 years. By compartmentalizing worry — setting aside a specific half-hour period each day to think about worries and consider solutions, and also deliberately avoiding thinking about those issues the rest of the day — people can ultimately help reduce those worries, research has shown. "When we're engaged in worry, it doesn't really help us for someone to tell us to stop worrying," said Tom Borkovec, a professor emeritus of psychology at Penn State University. "If you tell someone to postpone it for a while, we are able to actually do that." The new study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Four steps While the new study was small (it began with 62 patients, and a number of them dropped out), the researchers found that people who used worry reduction techniques before beginning therapy regimens reduced their anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms significantly more than people using only standard anxiety treatments. Four steps are involved in the stimulus control therapy to reduce worrying, according to Borkovec, who was not involved in the new research but was part of the group that developed stimulus control therapy for worry in the early 1980s. First, patients must identify and realize when they are worrying. Second, they must set aside a time and place to think about these worries. Third, when they catch themselves worrying, they must postpone worrying, and instead focus on the task at hand. Finally, patients are told to use the time they've set aside for worrying to try and solve the problems their worries present. In the Dutch study, even patients who only performed the first step  did better than those who only received the treatments for their anxiety disorders (though they did not do as well as those who completed all four steps of the therapy), the study showed. "The stimulus control program was more effective — especially after the stress management program [the researchers] put [the participants] through subsequently — than treatment as usual," Borkovec said. Get 'a little bit' over it The findings "raise the idea that some treatments may be more effective if you help people to get a little bit over their worry," Borkovec said. He also noted that the study should be repeated with larger groups of people. Worrying excessively, and the stress that can result, may have a physical effect on bodily health. Avoiding that excess worry can be aided by similar techniques to those that are used to curb overeating, the study said. People who overeat are advised to set up a specific time and place to eat. People who eat in front of the TV may find over time that simply watching TV can trigger their hunger. Similarly, people who worry frequently may find that places where they worry can trigger those worries in the future, the study showed. However, Borkovec noted, like many other treatments, simply trying out the technique might provide a placebo effect that helps treat a person's anxiety. He said, "It could set up a positive expectancy that results in the actual change, and that could be an example of the placebo effect." Pass it on: Scheduling a time to worry may help you worry less over the long run.

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Joe Brownstein
Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.