Worrying is feeling uneasy or being overly concerned about a situation or problem.
Worry can act as a motivator or emotional armour to help us solve problems related to our health, finances, or relationships among other things.
While worrying can have some benefits, excessive amounts can result in disorders in anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disruption, and even physical health problems.
Life Psychologists can help you work through worries and learn better ways to manage them.
Worrying is feeling uneasy or being overly concerned about a situation or problem. With excessive worrying, your mind and body go into overdrive as you constantly focus on “what might happen.”
In the midst of excessive worrying, you may suffer with high anxiety — even panic — during waking hours. Many chronic worriers tell of feeling a sense of impending doom or unrealistic fears that only increase their worries. Ultra-sensitive to their environment and to the criticism of others, excessive worriers may see anything — and anyone — as a potential threat.
Chronic worrying can affect your daily life so much that it may interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep, and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, cigarette smoking, or using alcohol and drugs.
Worry is a process of thinking, using language, that revolves around identifying problems. For example, if an individual was worrying about an upcoming test, they may think about not having studied enough, not being intelligent enough, being too tired to concentrate, having studied in an ineffective way, etc. Notice that in this example, potential solutions to these problems are not considered. The process of worry revolves exclusively around identifying problems.
It is helpful to understand worry as the very initial step of problem solving. Structured problem solving involves several steps including; identifying problems, identifying solutions, evaluating solutions, putting solutions into place, and evaluating solutions. When we worry, we remain in the problem identification phase of problem solving.
Worry is a chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable. It represents an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain but contains the possibility of one or more negative outcomes. Consequently, worry relates closely to the fear process. (Borkovec, Robinson, Pruzinsky and DePree, 1983)
As humans we have an amazing ability to mentally simulate future events: ‘thinking ahead’ means that we can anticipate obstacles or problems, and affords us the opportunity to plan effective compensatory actions. To the extent that it helps us to achieve our goals, ‘thinking ahead’ can be adaptive. Worrying is one form of thinking about the future. It has been defined as thinking about future events in a way that leaves you feeling anxious or apprehensive.
Clinically, excessive worry is the primary symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Evidence seems to indicate that the content of worry in people with GAD concerns similar topics to ‘everyday’ worry, but that it is often concerned with more unlikely or remote events. The terms ‘hypothetical worry’ and ‘real event worry’ are often used to describe this distinction. Other important differences are that people with GAD often experience their worries as uncontrollable, and will worry habitually instead of in response to particular triggers.
Life Psychologists explore whether there is a difference between the worry experienced by the average person, and the worry experienced by people whose worry is chronic or excessive. Several characteristics of problematic worry have been identified. We have learnt that problematic worry:
- Revolves around perceived or imagined problems, or problems unlikely to ever occur.
- Involves over-estimating the severity of potential negative outcomes.
- Is linked to a false positive belief that worry prevents real life problems from occurring.
- Is linked to a false positive belief that worry is helpful in solving problems.
It can be helpful for us to reflect on our own worry behaviour. We can ask ourselves if any of the above characteristics resonate with our personal experience.
There are several simple strategies that may help to manage excessive or chronic worry.
- Schedule “worry time” on your calendar. It sounds counterintuitive, even a little silly, but setting aside 20 or 30 minutes each day to focus on your worries is a first step toward containing them. Studies, including one at Penn State University, found that those who scheduled time to worry showed a significant decrease in anxiety in 2 to 4 weeks — plus they slept better.
Learn to distinguish between solvable and unsolvable worries. Productive, solvable worries are those you can act on right away. For instance, if you’re concerned about your finances, you can draw up a spreadsheet and a monthly budget to rein in your spending. If it’s high cholesterol and your health, you can lay off the fast food, make better choices at the grocery store, and start exercising.
- Engage in structured problem solving. Brainstorm solutions, evaluate solutions, put something into place, and evaluate whether your solution was effective.
- Reality-testing anxious thoughts: Asking yourself “how likely is it for this negative outcome to occur?” “How severe would be the consequences really be if this negative outcome were to occur?” “How would I advise a friend in a similar situation?”
- Keep a worry list or diary. One powerful way to help us break the cycle of worry is to log each and every worrying thought that pops into our mind. Examining worries written on paper — rather than mulling them over in your head — can help you gain a more balanced perspective.
Try relaxation techniques to interrupt the worry cycle. There are many science-backed relaxation techniques (deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, massage, getting outdoors, or just doing things you enjoy!) that counter feelings of worry, anxiety and stress. Incorporating them into your daily life can promote a calmer frame of mind, and help ward off worry. We just might find that we spend a lot less time feeling uncertain and concerned about what lies ahead.
- Allocate time for self-care activities that are soothing. Examples could include a warm bath, cooking a favourite meal, making a hot drink, or listening to music.
Generalised anxiety disorder (or GAD) is marked by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events for no obvious reason. People with symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work, or school.
GAD affects the way a person thinks, and it can lead to mental and physical symptoms. These can include:
- Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
- Unrealistic view of problems
- Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
- Trouble concentrating
- Tiring easily or being fatigued
- Increased crankiness or irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle tension or muscle aches and soreness
Everyone feels anxiety now and then — and there can be good reasons why. But in people with GAD, the worry is often unrealistic or out of proportion for the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, anxiety can even dominate a person’s thinking so much that they find it hard to do routine things at work or school, socially, and in their relationships. But there are treatments to ease anxiety so it’s not running your life.
Treatment for excessive worry and GAD most often includes a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Your daily habits can also make a difference.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. People being treated for worry and anxiety disorders often take part in this type of therapy, in which you learn to recognise and change thought patterns and behaviours that lead to anxious feelings. This type of therapy helps limit distorted thinking by looking at worries more realistically. You may want to look into joining a support group.
- Medications. These aren’t a cure, but they can help ease symptoms. Your doctor may recommend drugs called benzodiazepines, often used to treat GAD in the short term. These are prescribed less often than in the past because they may be addictive or sedating and can interfere with memory and attention. They work by curbing the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension and restlessness.
Certain antidepressants are also used to treat GAD for longer periods of time. They may take a few weeks to start working, but they’re safer and more appropriate for long-term treatment of GAD.
- Home remedies. These lifestyle habits also help:
- A healthy diet
- Getting enough sleep
- Avoiding caffeine
- Avoiding alcohol and other drugs
- Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing
- Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983). Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(1), 9-16.
- Dugas, M. J., Robichaud, M. (2007). Cognitive behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. Routledge.
- Sibrava, N. J., & Borkovec, T. D. (2006). The cognitive avoidance theory of worry. Worry and its psychological disorders: Theory, assessment and treatment, 239-256.
- Wilkinson A., Meares, K., Freeston, M. (2011). CBT for worry & generalised anxiety disorder. Sage.
You can seek help from a psychologist if you feel your worry is out of control. Your psychologist can assess if your worrying is a problem, and help you understand your worry. Together, you can work out how to get what you want in a better way.
They can advise you about other resources to help manage your worry, such as support groups, books and courses. Your psychologist can also help you manage other problems that may be associated with worry, such as anxiety, panic, depression, or personal relationships.
- Life Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in providing effective interventions for a range of mental health concerns, including worry.
- A Life Psychologist can help you to identify and address factors that might be contributing to your worry and the most effective ways to address worry using techniques based on best available research.
- Life Psychologists usually see clients individually, but can also include family members to support treatment where appropriate.
A medical check-up with a GP might also be helpful to see if there is an underlying health issue.