Hester ​Hill Schnipper​ ​ ​ Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center​

A FRIEND RECENTLY SHARED a coping strategy she learned from her grandmother. When her grandmother had more than one serious worry, she intentionally chose to turn her thoug​​hts to one concern and exclude all the others. Though she was free to exchange one worry for another, the rule was that she could only fret about one thing at a time. Her grandmother even had a name for her approach, calling it “the theory of competing antagonists.”

I’ve taught this approach to several of my clients who have cancer, and many have found that the conscious act of shutting the door on one fear—for example, anxiety about an upcoming scan instead of worry about a son who is about to lose his job—enables them to put both issues aside. It is difficult to explain why this works, but teaching people to reframe and control their worries somehow allows them to gain power over these feelings.

Here are some steps for incorporating this strategy and managing worry in general:

1) Think about what is upsetting you. If there are at least two serious concerns, choose just one to think about, and put the other fear aside.

2) Decide how much time you want to allocate for worry overall, and divide the time into segments for each concern.

3) Put a time limit on each worry and stick to it.

4) Consider scheduling worry time. If upsetting thoughts occur to you throughout the day, remind yourself that you can think about them only from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Often, when 5 p.m. rolls around, you will be busy doing something else.

5) Write down your worries on slips of paper and put them into a box. Alternatively, write your concerns in a document on your computer and put them in a designated folder. Leave those worries in the box or folder and go on with your day. 

6) Don’t minimize your anxiety. Your feelings are your feelings, and you’re entitled to worry, but it’s important that these feelings do not overtake your day.

7) Ask a friend or family member to be your worry buddy. Set up a time weekly or even daily to share and listen to each other’s concerns. In this way, you can put off thinking about a fear until the next conversation. When one of you voices concerns during these scheduled times, the other person just listens. This allows the person who is speaking to unload and process feelings without being influenced by the other person.

8) Remind yourself that, unless and until something actually happens, you don’t necessarily have to address it just yet. If there is some action that might ease your fears, take that action.

Worry is a part of everyone’s life, but cancer brings additional pressure. Coping strategies can help ensure that we—and not our fears—are in control. With practice, we can learn to put worries aside and use our energy to make our days brighter.

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.