How to Stop Worrying Using the "Spare Thought" Method
March 14, 2023
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Like many of us, I have been a worrier all my life. When someone is late getting home, I worry and imagine what horrible things might have happened. When I say something stupid, I relive the moment over and over, wishing I could change it. When I forget something, I berate myself again and again. When someone hurts me, I think about it constantly, like touching a bruise, feeling the pain, then touching it again and again and again. My brain turns into a machine—like a clothes dryer with tennis shoes in it—thoughts cycling, bumping the sides, colliding mid-air, noisily spinning around and around.
How can I stop it? I cannot count how often I have been told, “Don’t worry so much. It doesn’t do any good.” Easy for you to say! I cannot just turn off my worry. I feel helpless to stop it. The worry does not respond to my command. It’s like a bratty, out of control kid. It might pause for a second (as if considering what I told it to do), but then it just turns around and continues its unruly behavior. Even Bible verses don't work.
When I find myself in that vicious cycle, I often deploy what I call “my spare thought.” I figure out something else to think about instead. Something pleasant, or at least neutral. It’s a substitutionary method. I don’t try to stop the thoughts; I can’t. I turn my mind to something else. When I realize the worry cycle is out of control, I ask myself, “What can I think about instead?” Whatever I come up with, that is my “spare thought.”
Like we usually have a spare tire in our vehicles all the time, I try to have a spare thought ready at all times (even when I have not yet fallen into the uncontrollable worry cycle). I know that a vicious thought cycle will come, and it will be easier to start thinking of something else if I have a thought ready to use at all times. I won’t have to try to figure out what to think about; the spare thought will be there, ready for me to use.
My favorite spare thought is an upcoming trip. A trip is a rich source of many thoughts. I can think about:
What do I need to pack?
What will the weather be like?
I wonder how long it will take to get there?
Who will I see? What do I want to do with them?
What do I want to be sure not to miss?
What should I get done before I leave?
These kinds of questions do not stress me out. I enjoy planning and thinking about upcoming travels.
Some rich sources of thought do not work for me. Thinking about all the stuff I need to get done right now—my to-do list, for example—can fill my mind, but it adds to my stress level rather than relieves it. Reviewing a situation in my life may give me lots to think about, but often that is the source of my vicious worry cycle, not the way to stop it. Even something like planning a project is not helpful. I feel the pressure of a deadline or the stress of unknown possibilities.
If you decide to try this, you will want to consider what works for you as a spare thought. I have friends who love to decorate their homes. Perhaps thinking about how you want a space to look is a good spare thought. You can let your mind come up with ideas, visualize the new look, and imagine what you will do when it is done. Similarly, maybe planning a garden will be a good spare thought. Or considering ideas for a piece of art or handiwork. Or reliving a pleasant experience, imagining the memory, and using your five senses to remember what you saw, felt, smelled, heard, and tasted.
I use other tactics to stop worry, too—writing it all down, talking to someone about it, deep breathing, and praying. I have often read about or been advised to use those methods. I am glad to have them available. I have not seen or heard others talk about the spare thought method, though, so I offer it for your consideration. It took me years to come up with this method. Maybe it can help you sooner!
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