Did I remember to unplug the flat iron? Is my boyfriend cheating on me? What if this Uber driver suddenly decides to drive off this highway á la Thelma & Louise? Having worries like these is a part of human nature; after all, the brain has evolved to predict potential forthcoming danger to keep us safe. But while some worries are fleeting or easily resolved, others have a way of latching onto the brain—which can have trouble distinguishing between real and hypothetical threats. And that's where using a therapeutic tool called a "worry tree" can help.
Adapted from the self-help book Managing Your Mind by psychologist Gillian Butler, PhD, and psychiatrist Tony Hope, MD, a worry tree is essentially a problem-solving decision tree that poses "yes" or "no" questions to help you resolve or let go of any worry that's gnawing at your mind or disrupting your sense of peace. And the first juncture at which the tree splits into two branches asks you to determine whether the worry at stake involves a real problem about which you can take action or a potential scenario that's out of your control.
- Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT, doctor of psychology, licensed marriage and family therapist, certified EMDR practitioner, and the author of Gaslighting: A Step-by-Step Recovery Guide and Trauma Recovery Workbook for Teens
- Scott Lyons, PhD, holistic psychologist, educator, and author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others
Being able to assess and evaluate your thoughts in this way is a key part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is why therapists who employ CBT may use a worry tree with their clients who deal with chronic worries. But anyone who's facing a swirl of recurrent anxious concerns can use a worry tree diagram to help keep those thoughts at bay—which is an important thing to do for both physical and mental health.
After all, worried thoughts aren't just annoying in the moment, and they don't exist in a vacuum. From a mental-health perspective, research shows that perceiving a threat can trigger several harmful stimuli across the brain, disrupting our ability to pay attention, retain and recall memories, and perform executive functions like practicing self-control. And physically, excessive worrying can come with immediate symptoms like a rapid heart rate and nausea, and over time, can lead to poor sleep and up your risk for cardiovascular disease.
By employing a worry tree when you notice yourself falling into worry, therapists say you're working to target and diminish the power those worries might otherwise hold over your mind and body.
How does a worry tree work?
As noted above, a worry tree is a diagram like this downloadable one from Psychology Tools or this one from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that guides you through a series of questions to help you pinpoint the source of a worry, and either find a solution to it or drop it. (You can also download WorryTree, a free smartphone app that allows you to digitally work through worry trees and categorize particular worries as resolved or unresolved.)
The first step of any worry tree is to figure out what, exactly, the worry is, with the following step being to sort it into the bucket of either real or hypothetical. You're making that judgment call based on whether (or not) you can actually do something about the source of the worry, says psychologist Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT, author of Gaslighting: A Step-by-Step Recovery Guide to Heal from Emotional Abuse and Build Healthy Relationships.
If the answer to that question is "no" because the worry is hypothetical, the worry tree leads you to intentionally and consciously release it, says Dr. Vinall. But if it's "yes," and the worry is about a concrete thing in the present, then you move to the next branch of the worry tree, which is to sort the worry as a problem requiring action now or a problem needing action later (which you can schedule for a set time in the future). “In this way, a worry tree is not just a practical tool but an empowering mindfulness process, as well,” says Dr. Vinall.
"A worry tree is not just a practical tool but an empowering mindfulness process, as well." — Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT, psychologist
The simple act of writing down your thoughts as part of completing a worry tree can also allow you to view them from a new perspective and create some psychological distance from them, largely by activating a different side of the brain. “Writing involves the frontal lobe, which is a more logical region of the brain, thus shifting blood flow and energy from being concentrated in the emotional limbic system,” says Dr. Vinall. “This shift from solely intense emotional activation to bringing online the resources of the logical mind can have a calming effect.”
Seeing your anxious thoughts in writing can then reveal to you certain errors in logic and deductive reasoning, shining a light on worries that may be unreasonable, unfounded, or just plain out of your control. “[With the act of writing], we become more aware of cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, personalization, or discounting the positive,” says Dr. Vinall. “This creates space for neutral or even hopeful, optimistic thoughts to enter and balance out pessimism and worry.”
How to use a worry tree to work through anxious thoughts
1. Identify the worry
This step may seem obvious, but when you’re in a heightened state of stress, identifying the source of your anxious thoughts can be difficult. Take a moment to reflect on your worry and where that worry comes from, including whether there may be a deeper worry underlying it.
If, for example, you're worried about why a partner isn't responding to your texts, perhaps the deeper worry is that they're more concerned with whatever they're doing than they are with you. Or, if you're worried about an upcoming presentation at work, maybe the deeper worry is about how you're perceived by your colleagues.
2. Distinguish whether this worry is real or hypothetical
Real worries are rooted in reality and concern real-life events and situations. These worries are actionable and have a direct impact on your life. Take the example of the work presentation: If you feel worried about your ability to deliver, you can take the concrete step of setting aside more time in advance to prepare.
Unlike real worries, hypothetical worries deal with events or situations that simply don’t exist yet or may not ever exist. These are the, “What if?” worries. Sometimes they’re the result of allowing your mind to get carried away with negative thoughts, or are the product of an overactive imagination. A few examples: "What if my plane crashes?" or "What if my child gets kidnapped on the way home?" or "What if I catch a terrible illness?"
While hypothetical worries may not be real or rooted in any kind of imminent danger, your mind and body often can’t tell the difference between these and real worries, says holistic psychologist Scott Lyons, PhD, author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others.
“Even if it's imagined, there's still a residue of worry,” says Dr. Lyons. “So if we just say, ‘Oh, well, it's not actually real, so let's just mosey our attention over there, and ignore it’, then there's this little puddle of worry that never gets to be addressed. And then over time, it can become a lake.”
If you realize that your worry is hypothetical, it's important to make a conscious decision to let the worry go by readjusting your energy toward the things in your life that you *can* control (more on this below).
3. Take action
If you discover that your worry is real and actionable, then the next step of the worry tree is to figure out how you might act on it and whether that action can be taken immediately. For example, if your worry is that you left the stove on, and you're at home in another room, then you can take immediate action by going into the kitchen to check to see if the stove is indeed on and turning it off if so. Then, if the worry returns, you can take comfort in the fact that you've already taken a concrete action to resolve it.
If you find that the action can't be taken immediately, then make a specific plan for when you'll do it in the future. Oftentimes, just putting the plan in place can ease some of the anxiety around the worry.
4. Let go of the worry
The last step involves making the conscious decision to set the worry aside and place your attention elsewhere. This may be easier to do for real worries around which you were able to either take concrete action or plan to take action; but even for hypothetical worries, the act of identifying and labeling them as such can often help soften their grip on your mind and allow you to release them with more assuredness.
“For adjunctive support, take a mindfulness meditation class, or use a meditation app to practice the art of noticing your thoughts and letting them go,” suggests Dr. Vinall. “A gentle yoga practice and daily breathwork can also support re-regulating the nervous system from an activated state to that of calm.”
Because worries are future-oriented (you're worried about something that may or may not happen), shifting your focus toward any present activity is a deceivingly simple way to distract yourself and let go of worries in the process. That might look like taking an exercise class, reading, or seeing a movie with a friend—really anything that makes full use of your focus and attention in the present moment.
All of that said, if you're finding it tough to detach from worries despite working through a worry tree, or your worries are interfering with your ability to do the things you need or want to do, it's a good idea to seek outside support from a mental health professional.
- Robinson, Oliver J et al. “The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 7 203. 17 May. 2013, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00203
- Weise, Sigrun et al. “Worried sleep: 24-h monitoring in high and low worriers.” Biological psychology vol. 94,1 (2013): 61-70. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.04.009
- Larsen, Britta A, and Nicholas J S Christenfeld. “Cardiovascular disease and psychiatric comorbidity: the potential role of perseverative cognition.” Cardiovascular psychiatry and neurology vol. 2009 (2009): 791017. doi:10.1155/2009/791017
- Ruini, Chiara, and Cristina C Mortara. “Writing Technique Across Psychotherapies-From Traditional Expressive Writing to New Positive Psychology Interventions: A Narrative Review.” Journal of contemporary psychotherapy vol. 52,1 (2022): 23-34. doi:10.1007/s10879-021-09520-9
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