What, Me Worry?
Jerri Ledford knew she worried too much. She worried about her children. She worried about traveling. She even worried about worrying. "All my life people have called me a worrywart," says the Tennessee mother of two. "I thought that was just the way I was."
Fear, anxiety, and stress—such as that exhibited by Ledford—are all components of worry. Bill Crawford, PhD, author of All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go, defines worry as envisioning something bad that might happen in the future.
"There's a difference between 'awareness' and 'worry,'" says Dr. Crawford. He likens awareness to the red light on the car dashboard; no one is pleased to see the light go on, but you can appreciate the message, as it enables you to take action to handle or avert a problem. Contrast that with worry, which Dr. Crawford says involves agonizing over situations about which you have little control.
Is It a Blessing in Disguise?
Worry is typically defined in negative terms. However, some level is not only normal, but actually, is helpful.
"It's very adaptive and helpful to be able to worry wisely," says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition. In fact, people with a complete absence of worry may seem calm, cool, and collected. More likely, though, they're in denial, says Dr. Hallowell, and can "get into a lot of trouble" by ignoring danger signals.
"Worry is nature's alarm system. It's sort of like blood pressure," he adds—you need some level to be alive and healthy. It's when the alarm goes off for no reason or the level stays too high for too long—what Dr. Hallowell calls "toxic worry"—that problems arise.
How Does the Body Respond to Worry?
Worry causes a chemical reaction in the body, triggering the release of stress hormones that prepare you to respond to a dangerous situation by fighting or running away. With worry, though, the dangers are often imagined rather than real. As a result, explains Dr. Crawford, "We have our body in this hyperactive mode, but we're not doing anything."
Not only have you wasted time and energy, you've also unleashed chemicals that can interfere with other body processes, such as the immune system, and actually hamper your ability to act effectively. "Virtually every system in the body is affected by toxic worry," Dr. Hallowell says. "It's very destructive."
Who Are the Worriers?
Worry is often a learned behavior. "Most of us are taught to worry. Some of us are taught to worry a lot, and some of us are taught to worry a little," says Dr. Crawford. Other people begin worrying more after a life trauma occurs, making them fear a repeat of the incident. And a portion of the population, Dr. Hallowell says, is predisposed to the behavior. "There's definitely a genetic factor. Some people are born to worry and it's in their genes."
So how do you know when your worrying has crossed the line? "When it hurts," answers Dr. Hallowell. You need to look closely at the sources of your worry when it holds you back from doing what you want, from making decisions, or from living as fully as you'd like.
Is It An Anxiety Disorder?
Chronic, unchecked worry can indicate an underlying condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). At their extremes, both of these disorders are characterized by unfounded worry that is so severe it can prevent sufferers from functioning in everyday life.
There are some important differences between the two, says Justine M. Kent, MD, attending psychiatrist at New York State Psychiatric Institute and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. Those with GAD—an estimated 3%-5% of the population—usually demonstrate a lifetime pattern of chronic worry about common, everyday stressors such as health, work, and family, but to an overwhelming degree. People suffering from OCD, alternately, have persistent, obtrusive thoughts focusing on one particular area, such as excessive worry about germs, says Dr. Kent. Those with OCD often rely on rituals such as repeated handwashing.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, "The first place to start can be with your general practitioner or your internist," says Dr. Kent. A combination of therapy and medication has proven effective in reducing anxiety.
What Do I Do Now?
If you aren't suffering from an anxiety disorder but want to minimize your worry, Dr. Crawford suggests examining the degree to which you use worry—or fear—as a motivator. For instance, if you use worry to motivate yourself to perform your best at work, refocus on rewards instead of punishments. Envision how great it will feel to get that promotion rather than how bad it will be if you don't.
Dr. Hallowell also has several concrete recommendations for banishing worry:
- Never worry alone.—Making contact with another person and sharing your concerns is often the best way to combat incessant worry.
- Get the facts.—"A lot of times, worry is based on lack of information or misinformation," he says. Simply gathering data can help you develop a plan of action or even decide you don't need to worry after all.
- Make a plan of action.—By making a plan, you assume control of the situation. "Worry loves a passive victim," he explains. "The more you put yourself in control and reduce your vulnerability, the less you'll feel toxic worry."
Physical factors such as getting enough sleep, eating properly, and exercising also make a big difference in the amount of worry you experience. When your body is run down, you're more susceptible to letting your mind get carried away. Prayer and meditation can also help in calming runaway thoughts, says Dr. Hallowell. If none of these methods is helpful, the next step is to consult with a professional.
Though it's not easy to break the worry habit, it is possible—depending on how hard you're willing to work. Says Dr. Crawford, "I've seen people make amazing changes. It depends on how important it is to them."
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Mental Health Canada
Anxiety Disorders Association of America website. Available at: http://www.adaa.org.
Crawford B. All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go. Florence Publishing; 1996.
Freedom from Fear website. Available at: http://www.freedomfromfear.com.
Hallowell E. Worry: Hope and Help. Ballantine; 1998.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
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