Worry Dolls

Image courtesy of PegBuddies

Worry dolls originated in Guatemala, but are quickly gaining popularity in the western culture as well, particularly in child psychiatry. The idea is simple: at bed time you take your worry dolls out of their bag, and give each of them an assignment, something that the doll needs to work on while you're sleeping. It can be anything you wish: ensuring good weather for tomorrow, eliminating world hunger, making you grow taller, shooing away nightmares, etc. Once each doll has its assignment, you put them under your pillow and go to sleep, and dolls get to work. In the morning you put them back in their bag and they can rest till the next night. This tradition started out a children's activity, but has multiple psychological benefits for people of any age, especially abuse survivors. Here are some of these benefits:


Worrying about things is one of the main causes of insomnia. During the day we're busy working, running errands, interacting with other people - and when we go to bed we're finally alone and free of distraction, so the worries take over. This is especially true for abuse survivors because we have a lot of unprocessed feelings about the past trauma, and tend to continue accumulating them too. For example, when we have an argument with a friend - we don't tell them how we really feel and don't set boundaries; and then at night we keep tossing and turning, replaying the argument in our mind, seething with rage, crying from helplessness, cringing from shame, etc. This isn't productive because night time is for sleeping, not for processing emotions; in a few hours we'll have to get up and face another day. Symbolically delegating your worries to the dolls allows you to sleep peacefully. PS: if nightmares are a problem, you can assign one of the dolls to guard your sleep, and remind it to pay attention if you do wake up from a nightmare.


Bottling up your feelings, secrets, wishes, hopes, worries, and grievances - simply doesn't work, it leads to psychological problems, depression being the most obvious one. However, sharing these things with your friends and family isn't always feasible; neither is journalling (as someone can find your journal). For centuries people were coming up with various solutions to this problem. For example, religious confessions (where you're talking to a person, but don't see their face and they can't share what they heard with anyone), Whisper (where you submit your entries anonymously and nobody knows it was you), The Thoughts Room (where your words disappear as you type them); pets and teddy bears (that both children and adults talk to), etc. Worry dolls are another such solution. It might feel silly, to be talking to a small piece of wood, but it makes sense: dolls won't judge you, won't gossip about what they heard, and always have the time to listen. Simply saying what bothers you, verbalizing it, spilling your guts out - does provide emotional release and helps you maintain your mental health.


Giving the doll its assignment is different from unloading your emotions, because you need to formulate the problem. For example, you can't say "I think my boyfriend is cheating on me, my life sucks" - that's not an assignment, that's venting. You need to rephrase it to something constructive that the doll can work on, e.g. "make me trust my boyfriend more," or "make me so beautiful that my boyfriend wouldn't want to look at other women," or "find me another boyfriend," or whatever other solution you can think of. That's hugely therapeutic, because it changes how you view the situation, gently nudging you from venting to problem-solving, which makes you more likely to actually do something about it one day.


The number of dolls is limited, so you can't spend hours listing all of your problems every night; you're forced to pick the top few that bother you the most. This simple habit of prioritizing your problems is hugely helpful against depression, avoidance, and procrastination. "I have five clearly defined problems" is a lot more realistic and a lot less overwhelming than "My life is a mess, nothing works, I fail at everything, etc." One of the main reasons people avoid taking practical steps to improve their life and sink into depression (or even suicidal thoughts) is just that sitting down and sorting through what makes you unhappy is a painful and overwhelming task. To-do lists are helpful to some people, but anxiety-provoking for others. Worry dolls are a more gentle approach, because you're making no commitment to do anything about the problems yet, while already working on them, by picking which problems are important enough to mention and which can sit on backburner for now.


Worry dolls are pretty small, they fit in your hand, so they make great grounding objects. For example, you can hold them during dental and medical appointments, take them along when you travel (e.g. on an airplane), or even take them to your office on particularly stressful days (just put them in your desk drawer, nobody will notice it). Anything can be used as a grounding object of course, but if you already have worry dolls - they can easily serve both purposes.