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What the Psychology of Suicide Prevention Teaches Us About Controlling Our Everyday Worries

Two surprisingly simple yet effective techniques for ameliorating anxiety.

“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them,” wrote James Gordon Gilkey in his 1934 guide to how not to worry. “Don’t worry about popular opinion … Don’t worry about the past. Don’t worry about the future. … Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you,” F. Scott Fitzgerald advised his young daughter. And yet we do worry — we worry about money, we worry about whether our art is good enough, we worry that we’re all alone in the world, we worry about almost everything. For Kierkegaard, anxiety was the hallmark of the creative mind, but for most of us mere mortals, worries are more of a crippling than a crutch.

In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating explanation of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped when we’re on vacation — BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries:

Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case. His techniques come from cognitive behavioral therapy and may sound remarkably straightforward, but they are all backed up by trials.

‘My Wheel of Worry’ by Andrew Kuo, depicting his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs.
Click for details.

Hammond makes appreciative note of the fact that Kerkhof “does not make grand claims for his methods.” Rather, he offers the open disclaimer that his techniques won’t forever banish any and all worrying — but they do offer a promising way to cut down the time we spend worrying. Hammond offers a practical exercise based on the technique:

If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, he has several strategies you can try. This is where imagery comes in useful again. Imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on. An alternative is to choose a colour and then picture a cloud of that color. Put your worries into the cloud and let it swirl backwards and forwards above your head. Then watch it slowly float up and away, taking the worrying thoughts with it.

For those apt to dismiss this as Pollyanna psycho-blabber, Hammond points out that there is strong empirical evidence supporting Kerkhof’s theories and offers another of his techniques for those who find themselves too skeptical to try the abstract imagery exercise:

Set aside a time for worrying. Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously commanded his brother not to think of a white bear, and we know from the experiment on thought suppression which followed that, given that instruction, you can think of nothing but a white bear. … Likewise, telling people not to think of their worries isn’t going to work. Instead Kerkhof recommends the opposite. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

Time Warped is fantastic in its entirety. Pair it with Philippa Perry’s indispensable How to Stay Sane.

Published July 29, 2013




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