Coparenting Tips: Schedule Time to Worry
Coparenting can be stressful. Some stress is normal. But when worry and fear start to spread uncontrollably and infect unrelated aspects of your life, you’ve got a problem. It’s one thing to have things in your life that cause stress. It’s another to have that worry pop into your mind uninvited and make it impossible to focus on or enjoy daily life.
The effects of stress are well documented and definitely scary. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can cause headaches, chest pains, fatigue, changes in sex drive, stomach upsets, and sleeps problems. Some studies have even suggested that extreme stress leads to high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Certain types of amnesia can even be caused by stress, and lower levels can result in absentmindedness and forgetfulness.
The message that stress is bad isn’t exactly news. You’ve heard this before. And just like before, you shrug, and think how nice it must be for people who live stress free lives. But the truth is that there is no such thing. Some scientists have even suggested that stress is a natural part of how our brains work – we will always find something to feel stress about. That’s part of being human.
If that’s true, then our time is better spent learning to deal with stress than trying to get rid of it. One of my favorite tips to make this happen is to schedule time to worry. We can’t get rid of stress, but surely we can manage it better.
A few years ago, I was going through a stressful period. Things at work and life at home were both blowing up, coming together to form a perfect storm. I was barely sleeping, gaining weight, and developing ulcers.
Worst of all though, I spent all my time thinking about how worried I was. Even if I wasn’t experiencing the actual stress, I was thinking about what happened before and what might happen next. At best, I was half engaged with life. I wasn’t focusing on my kids when I was with them, I was worrying about all the things that could take them away. I wasn’t fully engaged with work at the office because I constantly had a disaster film playing in the back of my mind. It turns out that this is a terrible way to live.
I needed two things: to get back to enjoying life, and to do some real work on the things that were dragging me down.
A friend suggested I block out some time to do my worrying. Once in the morning and once in the evening I cleared my schedule and gave myself space to worry. Maybe more importantly, I gave myself permission to worry. One of the first things I discovered is that (in the same way I wasn’t fully engaged in anything else) I wasn’t fully engaging with my stress. I spent all my time just trying to push back the flood, so I never got any relief from releasing the gates.
I’ll be honest. The first few sessions were brutal. They were worth it, but excruciating. By fully engaging with my worry I was able to actually start dealing with it. Instead of spending all my time with stress leaking in, I dedicated some time to it and began the process of working through it. Which gave me the room I needed to live my life.
One of the most amazing things was that suddenly I could actually put fear and worry out of my mind. If I was playing with the kids and stressors started popping in uninvited I could banish them with the promise that the worry would get my full attention later. Ignoring it didn’t eliminate the distraction. But honestly postponing it did. A key to this was that I promised myself to stick to the schedule, and I held myself to it. If I hadn’t followed through on the worry time, I would have been right back to avoidance and in the same place I was before.
I don’t schedule worry time every day anymore. In fact, I usually only do it when I find stress leaking in at the edges of every day life. But when I’m trying to enjoy an afternoon outside but keep getting hit by adrenaline spikes of fear – I know I need to carve a few minutes out of my day for a while to embrace my worry and start working through it.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few rules that make the process easier and more productive. You could take the trial and error approach, but I’d rather share what I’ve learned. So here are the basics: find 2 times a day when you can schedule 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to worry. I generally schedule mine first thing in the morning and then later in the evening, but go with what works for you. You need to be alone, and somewhere you won’t be tempted to seek distraction (no TV, email, phone, etc.). Beyond that, the time and location are up to you (and can change from day to day so long as you stick to the commitment of twice a day. And finally, set a timer that will sound some kind of an alarm to let you know that time is up.
Here are a few rules to help you get the most out of the practice.
Rule Number 1: Make a commitment and stick to it. I touched on this before, but the relief is a byproduct of actually doing the work. If you try to put off the worry with an empty promise of focusing on it, your brain is going to see right through the lie. Likewise, you need to fully embrace the worry in order to start moving past it.
Rule Number 2: No worrying outside scheduled times. This is hard, and comes with practice. But do your best to postpone all worries until the scheduled time. When fear pops in uninvited do your absolute best to kick it down the road. As your brain realizes that you’re committed to the regime, it will get easier. But especially for the first few days you’ll need to put some effort into keeping to the boundaries that you’ve set – but it will be worth it.
Rule 3: Go big or go home. Spend your ten minutes thinking about nothing but the worst worries you can conjure. In the same way that you should avoid negative thoughts during the rest of the day, you should avoid positive thoughts for these 10 minutes. The more worry and anxiety that you can cause here, the more benefits you’ll get for the rest of the day. If you run out of things to worry about it’s fine to focus on the same ones. But do not try to rationalize your way out of the worry during the session. This is just about worrying and worrying with everything you have. Do not talk yourself out of the fear. Feed the fire and let it burn. That’s the only way to clear out all the underbrush.
Rule 4: Decompress. When your alarm sounds you need to do something to signal that worry time is over – to draw a hard line in the sand. This can be a series of deep breaths or a few jumping jacks. Whatever it is, try to do the same thing every time. This will teach your brain to recognize the end of the session and a return to no-worry time.
This is a powerful technique to take back control from worry and fear, but tends to sound silly until you try it. Here’s the deal, if your day is already overrun with anxiety and dread, then you’ve got nothing to lose. Some stranger on the internet just told you that it changes lives. Even if you only got a fraction of that result, wouldn’t it be worth 20 minutes a day for a few weeks? Because I guarantee that if you give it that much time, it will give you your life back.
Sound like a fair trade? Let me know how it goes.