Stop Solving the Unsolvable: When Worry Goes Overboard
Chronic, persistent worry, exhibited in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder tends to fall into two categories (American Psychiatric Association, 2013): Worries about solvable problems and worries about unsolvable problems. Often my patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are incredibly good at managing solvable problems. If you are reading this and you have been diagnosed with GAD, I bet you have been called an effective problem solver by people who know you well. Worrying about unsolvable problems similarly is often an attempt to solve a problem that has not yet occurred. In this sense, it should be emphasized that healthy worry serves as an important cognitive function. Healthy worry helps us prepare for the future, plan for navigating challenges, and keep our lives in order. If you know someone who doesn’t worry often, you may know the problems that sometimes result from never engaging in the cognitive process of worrying. They may not be the best at planning, timeliness, or remaining organized and vigilant of what tasks need to be managed. However, chronic and excessive worry often fuels catastrophic thoughts and endless “what ifs'' that cycle through your brain (Zinbarg, Craske, & Barlow, 2006). It can be very difficult to stop and/ or to control these “what ifs.'' Therefore many worriers lose a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about future catastrophes that could happen and struggle to remain in the present moment (Zinbarg, Craske, & Barlow, 2006).
So what can you do to stop trying to solve the unsolvable problems and catastrophes of the future (sometimes called hypothetical worry)? First, I recommend that my patients determine which worries reflect solvable problems and which worries reflect unsolvable problems (Zinbarg, Craske, & Barlow, 2006). Not only can it be helpful to sort out solvable vs. unsolvable worries, but also it can be helpful to start asking yourself “do I need to solve this problem today?” We are bombarded with endless problems in our lives that need solving. Chores will always need to be completed, new work will keep piling up at your job, and family gatherings will continue needing planning. But does the task need to be managed today? Most problems can actually be solved tomorrow; however, some must be managed today. Start with those. Zinbarg, Craske, and Barlow (2006) recommend doing as follows to manage solvable problems that warrant immediate attention: 1). Identify the problem; 2). Consider all solutions; 3). Rank solutions from the best solution to the worst; 4). Create a plan to carry out the best solution; 5). Do it! Implement the solution and try again if it doesn’t work. Essentially, fix what you can in the most effective and efficient way possible.
After recognizing which problems need solving today, the unsolvable problems may still seem well… unsolvable. I argue that is simply not the case. Unsolvable problems can be managed in two ways. The first is by “sitting with” the “what-if” long enough to see that the “what if” has not happened yet and likely won’t. Most of our catastrophic fears actually do not come true or are unlikely to come true. With the assistance of a mental health professional who specializes in anxiety disorder treatment, you can learn a variety of tools for sitting with catastrophic thoughts. The goal is to desensitize yourself to such thoughts because the reality is, they are simply thoughts. If you repeatedly expose yourself to scary “what if” thoughts, eventually you will no longer be afraid of them and/or learn to tolerate them without having to do anything about them (e.g., unhealthy worry). In treatment, we will help you do so in a systematic way. In addition, we will help you learn how to become a scientist. We will encourage you to ask questions such as, what evidence do you have that this is truly going to happen? Oftentimes, it seems to be difficult for my patients to believe such evidence until after they have “sat with” their anxiety for a period of time. In other words, rational thinking can be difficult until the emotion brain has been exhausted.
Another strategy we will assist with is called decatastrophizing (Zinbarg, Craske, & Barlow, 2006). Catastrophizing can be defined as considering potential future events as awful and intolerable (Zinbarg et al., 2006). If you are a chronic worrier, you may often say “I could never deal with that” when certain “what-ifs” pop into your head. For instance, if you have recently had the thought “what if I make a mistake at work and then appear incompetent and then I lose my job and then I am without income and then I am homeless,” you may then state, “well, I could never deal with that, that would be too terrible.” You may try to leave it there, push the thought out of your brain, and try to avoid the thought for the rest of the day. But oftentimes, that doesn’t work because that terrible “what if” keeps intruding into your thought processes. For this reason, you will learn to decatastrophize in treatment. If that “what if” persists, it is important to actually take a look at it and consider several things. First, would you survive it? If you would, how would you cope with it? How long would it last? How bad would it be? Essentially, you will realize that you will live through even the most catastrophic events and somehow cope with them. Of course, it would be difficult. It would not be easy to make a critical error at work and to get fired and to go on unemployment. But would you get through it? Yes. You could go on unemployment and start looking for new jobs and find a new job and start working at your new job. It would be a hassle. It would be hard. But you would get through it. Negative, sometimes devastating, events will happen in all of our lives but we will survive and deal with them because unpleasant emotions and circumstances do not last forever (Zinbarg, Craske, & Barlow, 2006).
In sum, managing worry entails becoming an effective problem solver. Solve the problems you can. Sit with or de-catastrophize the problems you can’t. Solve the unsolvable problems by recognizing you will be able to handle/ cope with even catastrophic problems, even if we can’t solve the unsolvable.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Zinbarg, R. E., Craske, M. G., & Barlow, D. H. (2006). Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry: Therapist Guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.