I Use The “Worry Room” Method to Manage My Anxiety — Here’s How It Works

published May 22, 2022
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I knew it was time to seek help when I was spending hours online looking up every symptom in my body and every medicine I was prescribed. Bad habits — or in my case, anxiety patterns — take time to overcome. So, when my therapist recommended I try the “worry room” technique, I went to the one place I knew I could find more information: the internet. But all I found when I searched the term were references to Scrooge McDuck pacing in circles in his worry room — first believed to have appeared in the 1950’s Disney comics “The Secret of Atlantis,” written by Carl Barks.

A worry room, by its name, is sort of what it sounds like: a space where you go to acknowledge your worries at a designated “worry time.” Then, when you exit the room, you are also leaving behind your worries.

The approach is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concept of “worry time,” where you schedule time to consider anxious thoughts. When entering a worry room, “it is important to set an associated schedule and time limit, otherwise people may find themselves spiraling into anxious thoughts and spending hours each day in their worry room,” says Landry Weatherston-Yarborough, executive director at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center.

She also warns that a worry room, while it can be useful for people with generalized anxiety, might be less helpful for those experiencing intrusive thoughts related to OCD or trauma, or who have specific phobias. As with any method for managing anxiety, a worry room is not a one-size-fits all answer, but it can be beneficial for some. Here’s how to try it out:

Note worries that occur outside “worry time.”

Brenda Arellano, a licensed psychological associate, has come across people who struggle to wait until their worry time. The goal is to reduce the amount of time one spends worrying by giving your brain permission to worry at a specific time in a specific space, rather than anywhere at any time. She calls this an “advanced strategy” that she typically recommends to her clients who have other coping mechanisms “to help them relax, feel calm, and notice challenging thoughts.”

When worries appear outside your scheduled time or zone, the first step is to acknowledge that you are having worries, and if possible, name them. My anxiety thought patterns are almost always the same: There’s a trigger about my health, I worry that I’m dying, and then I read more about my symptoms, which feeds into my anxiety. I have found that admitting aloud to myself “yes, I am scared” and asking myself what I’m worried about calms me down a lot.

Arellano also points out that people are sometimes concerned they might forget what they had to worry about if they wait until later. To them, she encourages making notes in a few words like “work,” “kids,” “noisy neighbors,” so they don’t risk going down an anxiety rabbit hole in the moment.

She adds, “For other folks, having a mantra or reminder that they come back to is helpful like, ‘If it’s really important, I will remember. If I don’t remember, it probably wasn’t that important to begin with, or I don’t have to deal with that right now.’”

A “worry room” does not need to be a “room.”

My worry room has been everything from a spare room, to a corner of my bedroom, and even a space outdoors. Arellano agrees that it could also be a designated chair, a bean bag, or whatever works for your living situation. Weatherston-Yarborough says you can create experiences by writing in a journal or talking about your anxieties with a safe person.

A designated worry time can be 10-15 minutes, as long as it is not too close to bedtime. In the short term, sitting with your worries could cause more anxiety, but Arellano says that’s normal and expected. “Our brain is learning to change the way we see or relate to the thoughts,” she says. Eventually, it is common for people to notice that they might have only five minutes worth of things to worry about. They could then shorten their worry time or use the remaining minutes to plan, reflect, and acknowledge positive events. When entering and exiting any worry room, the most important part is to be patient and remember that one strategy alone is not a cure-all.