How to stop rumination and worrying
Why do we ruminate and worry?
Worry jars are a technique from the world of cognitive behavioural therapy, and one of the simple tools we teach both adult and children. This skill can help stop rumination and reduce the time spent worrying.
Human brains are inventive –we can find lots of ways to try to cope with worries, and sometimes we do things that don’t actually help us to stop ruminating. Ruminating is a common feature in anxiety.
Some people with anxiety try not to think about their worry thoughts and the things that unsettle them. Others feel that their mind jumps from worry to worry. For others, they may believe that worrying, and having the having strong, unpleasant emotional sensations generated… “I feel worried” is important. But worrying is not a sign that we are taking a problem seriously. And worrying isn’t the same as considering something to be important.
Research tells us that ruminating (repetitively thinking about something), is unpleasant, and that it can lead to lower wellbeing. It is also a fact that worrying is not the same as problem solving. Worrying is simply an activation of certain brain pathways, and when we regularly use these pathways, then our brain becomes more practiced – we get better at worrying! And we then tend to do more of it. It can become a bad habit unless we learn how to contain our worries. And this is where worry jars or worry boxes come in.
The Worry Jar
Using a worry jar is a technique designed to help us to look at our anxiety, to problem solve it. It can help teach us the skills to contain anxiety more easily. We want to stop anxiety being in charge of our day.
Essentially, tools like the worry jar help us learn how to become the boss of our anxiety.
The worry jar technique involves writing down the worry onto a piece of paper. By doing so, this helps us identify and name the anxiety. Worry jars come from journaling therapy techniques but are an easier strategy.
By acknowledging fears, and expressing them in pictures or words, the fears can take up a physical space. This can potentially allow your mind to release them for the rest of the day. Gone, but not forgotten – as the next day you will have permission to open the jar, review the contents and worry again.
It can be difficult to contain anxiety, or to challenge it if we do not take time to understand what our worry thoughts are. Writing them down forces us to name the worry – and for habitual worriers, to face the realisation that often the same worries are replaying in their minds. Worry jars help us realise that worrying is not problem solving. Worrying is not an activity that is related to how important something is. It begins to build a strategy for managing both problems and anxiety – a strategy that can be used across the lifespan to cope with the many different life challenges we face.
I know from years of working with clients that worry boxes, or worry jars can be amazingly powerful, and their simplicity is part of the appeal.
Why do worry jars work?
Worry Jars help to give the worry a boundary, and establish helpful principles for managing life’s challenges, whether real or imagined. Unlike ruminating, where we might replay worries over and over, the focus of the worry jar is:
- Giving yourself permission to indulge in, to have feelings of worry for a set amount of time and
- Learning to contain worries to a time of your choice (becoming the boss)
- Understanding the difference between worrying and problem solving
A key requirement of the worry jar technique is setting aside a dedicated “worry time” – a time when you have permission to entirely focus on your worries and think deeply about them. I do not usually recommend problem solving during worry time. Problem solving is a different skill, best learned separately. Although it can be helpful to go ahead and problem solve the things written down during worry time, it is not the purpose of this technique.
Making a Worry Box or Worry Jar
Any type of container can be used to help stop rumination.
Worry jars can be made from all types of containers. It can be glass, plastic, or a paper tissue or shoe box. The container itself does not matter.
You may like to decorate the jar or box.
Crafting part of the box or jar can help take ownership and make it a more pleasant task, and it can help to engage children.
You can add a “Worry” label depending on your preference.
How to use your Worry Jar – three steps
I recommend using a timer.
- Set aside a time to be worry time. 30 minutes is ideal. Evenings are often better as it is a time many people notice they worry less in the mornings. It can help to have the same set time each day.
- During your allocated worry time, write down each of your worries onto pieces of paper or post-it-notes. Focus on allowing yourself to replay the worry thoughts in your head, and even indulge in some dread and fear feelings if you want to. Really focus on your worries and worry as hard as you want to. This is your worry time.
- But when the timer goes off, worry time is over. The worries are placed in the jar, and it is time to switch to more fulfilling ways to spend our time.
Daily Practice is essential
The daily practice is key component of what makes the technique work to stop rumination and reduce worry. It can get a little boring to pull the worries out of the jar each day and focus your attention on them. We want that boredom with worrying to set in. We want worrying as an activity to become tedious. Most people find it hard to give worry their full attention. It is much easier to have worry running continuously in the background, or to spend time seeking reassurance. When the worry jar is used, those other strategies are to be dropped in favour of giving worry our full attention for up to 30 minutes a day.
If you find worries popping up at other times of the day, write them down on a piece of paper, so that you can think about them during worry time. This is part of learning to contain worries and training your brain to focus on what you choose, rather than follow anxiety pathways to worry.
If you allow your mind to engage in background worrying, the technique will be less effective. It will take some practice to re-train your mind if you are already a habitual worrier, but it is not impossible.
Interestingly, in the beginning most people think 30 minutes would be too little time – but it is amazing how after only a week, most people ask if they can reduce their worry time. And that is exactly the purpose of the jar. After a few days, you might find 30 minutes is too much time spent worrying.
You can reduce the time when you are ready – this is a life strategy, and the worry jar technique will become a tool in your wellbeing kit, used as much or as little as is needed.
Deciding where to store the Worry Box or Worry Jar
It is important to find a suitable place to store the jar, especially for children. For most people that will be outside the bedroom. To ensure worries are safely stored, children could place a stuffed toy next to their box of jar.
Many people have the experience of worrying more as bedtime draws near. This is because there is less distraction – and can also be because your mind recognises that this has previously been your “worry time”. This is often one of the most important times to stop ruminating, as it can interfere with falling asleep.
It may be helpful to open the worry jar and write down all the worries just before bedtime. Experiment with what works best for you. Some children can find writing down worries at bedtime, placing them in the box and having a parent take them out the room comforting.
Bedtime generally isn’t the time to start problem solving. Having a list of worries means that the next day, when you are fresh, you can set aside time to problem solve. That means looking at whether any of the worries can be problem solved with a trusted friend or parent.
Adding to your tool box
Worry boxes or worry jars are just one of the tools that can help stop rumination and worrying. If anxiety is getting in your way, it is important to seek help from someone trained to help, who can tailor the strategies so that they work for your individual circumstances.
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Dr Amanda Mullin, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Founder, Mindworx Psychology