Ever find yourself being distracted in the practice room by all sorts of random thoughts and worries?

Such as, will I be able to learn my part before the rehearsal? What will I do if I don’t even get into my safety schools? Will I be able to pay my bills at the end of the month? Will I be able to get home before the dog pees on my shoes in protest for being neglected all day?

Like in-laws who live across the street, these worrisome thoughts like to spontaneously pop into our personal mental space at the most inconvenient times, whether we’re in the middle of 4-octave arpeggios or just starting to get into the flow of studying for a theory quiz.

It’s one thing if these worries ducked back out as quickly as they entered, but they tend to stick around. And once we start thinking about these heartburn-inducing possible futures (which all seem to end with living in a van down by the river ), it gets harder to stop this train of thought.

This has an emotional toll of course, as worrying can make us more stressed, anxious, and tense.

But worrying also has an interesting impact on our productivity. Even though worrying could in theory help us avoid future unpleasantness, the worrying process itself doesn’t usually lead to any problem-solving. The thoughts simply play themselves out in our heads like a broken record1, with a sprinkling of past regrets and personal shortcomings thrown in for good measure. All of which takes up precious time, and can leave us feeling more discouraged and hopeless.

So how do we get off of the least enjoyable psychological Ferris wheel ever?

It’s worry time

Back in the 80’s, researchers at Penn State were searching for a way to help us worry less. In particular, they wondered if worriers could develop more control over the intrusiveness and uncontrollability of these thoughts.

Rather than developing a strategy for opposing these worries directly, they decided to test a strategy for redirecting these worries. Like mental aikido.

Instead of talking back to that voice in our head or trying to eliminate worry entirely, they taught folks how to do the opposite. To worry on purpose – but only during a specific and limited period of the day.

A 4-step technique for managing worry

51 habitual worriers (those who reported worrying at least 50% of the day) were asked to fill out a daily worry questionnaire for a week to get a clearer picture of what their worry looked like, and how much of an impact it was having on their life.

Then, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was taught a 4-step worry-reduction “stimulus control” technique, while the no-treatment group simply continued filling out the daily worry questionnaires with no particular strategies to try.

What was this 4-step technique? Essentially, it involved having the participants defer any worries to a designated 30-minute period of “worry time” when they were free to worry as much as they wanted. Here are the details:

  1. Learn to identify worrisome thoughts and other thoughts that are unnecessary or unpleasant. Distinguish these from necessary or pleasant thoughts related to the present moment.
  2. Establish a 1/2-hour worry period to take place at the same time and in the same location each day.
  3. When you catch yourself worrying, postpone the worry to the worry period and replace it with attending to present-moment experience.
  4. Make use of the 1/2-hour worry period to worry about your concerns and to engage in problem-solving to eliminate those concerns.

Four weeks later, the researchers analyzed the results to see if “batching” one’s worries had any impact.

Batching works!

At the outset of the study, the treatment group spent an average of about 40.31% of the day worrying, while the non-treatment group spent about 41.72% of the day worrying. So no real difference there.

But by the end of the month, the treatment group had reduced their worry significantly – to about 24.81% of the day (about a 40% reduction in worry). Meanwhile, the no-treatment group’s worry didn’t change; they still worried about 40.08% of the day.

Take action

For the next week or two, try the 4-step technique and see if this could help you keep those intrusive worries from interrupting your practice and study time.

1) Schedule, say, 10-20 minutes of worry time (but not too close to bedtime, because that’s a real downer of a way to end your day)

2) During the day, when negative thoughts, worries, concerns, and other non-task-relevant thoughts pop into your awareness, write them down so you can revisit them during worry time.

3) When it’s worry time, go nuts and enjoy. Worry all you want, and engage in all the “what if’s” or “I should haves” you can.

4) But also devote some of this time to generating potential solutions. Worried about not being able to have a piece memorized in time, for instance? Plan out the remaining days before your performance/audition by putting in some milestones, identifying some memorization strategies, and scheduling time to devote purely to memorization of this piece, plus opportunities to test your memory well in advance of the performance.

How can I tell if I worry too much?

If you’re a habitual worrier, you probably don’t need any sort of test to tell you if you are or not, but online quizzes are always fun, so here’s one to try – the 16-question Penn State Worry Questionnaire:

Take the assessment

Footnotes

  1. Which I’m old enough to sort of remember, but is becoming an increasingly dated reference. Here’s what it means.