How to Unload Your Worries in Under 5 Minutes a Day


If you let worry decay your day—read on. I am an expert on worry. I come from a long line of professional worriers. My dad in particular. He was so engrossed by all the fear inducing stories in the media, so having fun with him about it helped us both.

Sensible people worry

My father convinced me that I needed to worry or bad things would happen. I came to believe that worry was a sign of intellectualism, realism and “being sensible”. It only makes sense then, that being positive meant you were naive or in denial. Sally Armstrong, an award-winning journalist once noted, “If you write negative news, nobody asks you to prove it. If you write positive news, people want a jury.”

Great thinkers say worrying is–a waste of time

However, the more I studied the great thinkers in history, the more I questioned those beliefs. Recently John-Roger wrote “Worry is paying interest on a debt you may not owe”. Sixty years ago Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened.” Four hundred years ago Moliére said, “People spend most of their lives worrying about things that never happen”. And finally over two thousand years ago Plato said, “Not one shred of evidence supports the notion that life is serious.”

The Worry Jar experiment (10 minutes per week)

One day I decided to do an experiment. I got an old cookie jar and cut up strips of paper. At the beginning of the week I wrote down one worry thought per strip of paper. I put the strips in the jar as a symbolic way of “letting them go”. At the end of the week I pulled the strips out, and put them in three piles.

  1. “Never happened”
  2. “Happened and the consequences were manageable”
  3. “Happened and the consequences were just as bad as I imagined”

Guess which was the biggest pile? The first pile contained 85% of the strips, the second pile 14%, and the third 1%. I did this for seven more weeks and the percentages remained similar. I proved Moliére’s theory. Now I do this exercise with participants in my longer programs and people prove it for themselves.

The difference between “Taking care of” and “Worrying”

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from “taking care of” your priorities and unnecessary worry? Ask yourself this question “Is this something I can take action on right now? If not, let it go for now.

For example, I gave a presentation at a conference and after driving for 30 minutes, realized I left my purse in a public washroom at the conference. At first my thoughts were constructive. “I better turn around and go back. I better call the conference organizer”. These were actions I could take at that moment. However, when I discovered the organizer had gone home, and when I found myself locked in rush hour traffic, my thoughts began to darken. I watched my mind create increasingly worse scenarios. “I won’t find my purse, I’ll have to get new ID, I won’t be able to go on my trip tomorrow, someone will buy a Winnabago with my VISA card”. I became very bad tempered and anxious.

At one point, I realized that it made no sense to ruminate about “what if’s” because there was no action I could take yet. I started listening to Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Café. After laughing through a story or two, the adrenaline eased off. I arrived at the conference center 30 minutes later to find the janitor had picked up my bag and was holding it for me, everything intact.

Worry is a mental parasite

Worry thoughts are like parasites that want you as their host. A worry thought convinces you it is your friend, that without it you would die or be a bag person with no legs, one eye, and a stock portfolio worth 2% of its original value. Worry thoughts fly through the stratosphere at millions of bytes per second. You can download them any time, anywhere, at no cost.

Beware of the Law of Attraction

This Law states that our negative thoughts attract negativity, and our positive thoughts attract positives to us. Therefore, if you spend time worrying about not having enough money, over time you are training your mind to not have enough money. In other words, what you resist persists. It makes more sense to spend your thought time in joyful, positive ways. After all, life is short.

How do you actually change your focus?

If you have ever spent a sleepless night worrying, you know that actually changing your focus can be difficult. You can download joy thoughts just like worry thoughts, but they tend to be more elusive. They are like flower seeds that must push up through all the dark matter in order to thrive. The proportion of worry thoughts to joy thoughts floating around at our present time in history is probably about ten to one. That is why it is so easy to get caught like a freeway commuter at quarter past five. Ridding yourself of the worry parasite requires a commitment to a habit. Here are some tried and true habits for daily Mental Flossing.

1. Refuse to download

Have you ever been assaulted by a pop up window asking you to download something? Worry thoughts are like pop-ups. You can simply click NO.

2. Observe and label

Okay. You got sucked in. You downloaded and the worry parasite has taken hold. Notice that you let it happen. This “observer” state can often help you detach and eventually delete the thought.

3. Do a reversal

What is the opposite of the worry thought? “What if my work isn’t good enough?” becomes “What if my work is excellent?” Or, “I might be late” becomes “I might be on time.” Just like trying on clothes in a store, decide to take off the worry thought, and try on a positive one instead. See how it feels.

4. Laugh about it

Laughter is THE cerebral laxative. It can purge you of unwanted thought matter. I remember racing through Vancouver Airport barely holding onto my wardrobe bag, computer bag and boarding pass. I came whizzing around the corner and saw a bronze statue of a man racing through the airport barely holding onto a wardrobe bag, computer bag and boarding pass. I suddenly saw myself from the outside and had to laugh. I walked the rest of the way to my gate resigned to whatever fate awaited me. Once there I discovered my flight was delayed 20 minutes. Look at yourself from an outside perspective and remember that “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”

Tell me about your best “Mental Floss” activity

Just as we brush our teeth daily, we need to have a regular habit to remove “thought plaque” that builds up. Do you have a habit that might inspire others? If so, send it in. Or, try the Worry Jar exercise above and send in your results. We are gathering case studies for a book and may include yours.

Carla speaks at conferences, staff development programs and leadership retreats.