Worry, or thinking about problems or fears, real or hypothetical, may be unavoidable at times, as most people tend to worry about some aspect of their lives. However, chronic or excessive worrying can affect physical and emotional health negatively. Those who wish to manage or minimize persistent worry may find it helpful to speak to a therapist.
In certain situations, worry and anxiety can lead people to make healthy decisions and may even help keep them alive. Worrying about finances, for example, can help prevent someone from spending money recklessly, and worrying about basic safety may make someone more likely to lock doors and windows and become informed about self-defense tactics. But when worry persists, occupying much of one's thoughts and preventing relaxation or enjoyment of life, it can have a significant effect on mental health. Some people may worry to the extent that they become unable to focus on daily tasks, and others might experience panic attacks or develop insomnia or unhealthy eating habits.
Worry may also affect physical health negatively. When the imagination produces a frightening scenario, the body responds by releasing a number of chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, in the same way that it would if the imagined scenario were actually taking place. These chemicals help people react to danger on a short-term basis, but they also cause blood to clot faster, raise blood pressure, and lead to muscle tension. In the long term, these effects can reduce immunity, causing illness. Carrying stress in the body may also lead to aches and pains and the development of high blood pressure or other heart problems. Cancer, liver cirrhosis, and mental health issues such as anxiety can be both caused and exacerbated by worry.
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A habit of persistent worrying may be learned in childhood, and worry seems to be less of a factor late in life: Studies show that people aged 65-85 worry less than those aged 16-29.
Excessive worry has consistently been linked to anxiety, but research suggests that it is also a significant factor in other conditions such as posttraumatic stress, drug and alcohol addictions, eating disorders, insomnia, and paranoia. Frequent worry may also be associated with obsessions and compulsions, and worrying about completely irrational fears without recognizing they are irrational may indicate schizophrenia or another psychotic condition. This type of irrational worrying might also occur during the manic phase of bipolar.
While many who tend to worry excessively might believe that imagining potential negative scenarios will prevent them from becoming reality, or that they will be better able to plan for a negative outcome by thinking about it extensively, worry, to such an extent, is not actually beneficial. Though it is not, in itself, a diagnosable condition, its prevalence as a factor in mental health conditions helps show the extent of its negative effects.
Worry is a complex problem that may have many causes, and therapy will attempt to address these causes. Strategies to manage excessive worry can be explored in therapy, and mental health conditions in which worry is a factor, such as generalized anxiety, can be treated, leading to less frequent worrying as other symptoms diminish.
When worry has a clear cause, such as issues in the workplace or relationship stress, techniques to cope with the anxiety resulting from these stressors can be developed. Some worry may result from childhood trauma or troubling life events, and trauma-centered or grief counseling can help in overcoming this kind of worry.
When worry is caused by general stress or anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy may help with the development of healthy coping and thought patterns. A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, in which people learn to notice when they are worrying and modify the pattern of worrying by finding other methods to cope with stress and negative occurrences, has been shown to be helpful, especially in those who worry due to anxiety.
Several tactics may help reduce excessive worry, such as:
- Discussing anxieties or concerns with someone trusted, or write them out. Simply speaking about fears may help them seem less troubling.
- Planning ways to deal with issues that cause worry. Knowing what to do if a dreaded event does occur can help reduce the anxiety that develops from an imagined scenario.
- Accepting the outcome of situations that cannot be controlled. Worry typically does not prevent a negative outcome.
- Focusing on relaxation or enjoyable activities in times of stress. This may not reduce the worry, but pleasant pastimes can be a distraction, and relaxation may facilitate a more positive thought pattern.
- Setting aside a certain amount of time (10-15 minutes) each day to consider worries and avoiding thinking about them at other times in the day.
- Exercising and eating well. Maintaining physical wellness can often help one keep a more positive outlook.
- Constantly worried adolescent girl: Frieda, 11, worries nearly nonstop about her school work, the health of her pet cat, and the weather, among other things. After a few therapy sessions spent in play, themes in Frieda’s imagination begin to unfold: Suppressed anger, scary monsters, going to heaven. A family history reveals her father’s struggle with alcohol and anger and her mother’s reliance on religious faith to cope. Although her father is now sober, Frieda fears a return to the chaos of her early childhood and copes by hiding in a world of religious fear and fantasy. Through play therapy and facilitated conversation with her mother and father, Frieda begins to regain a sense of trust in the ability of herself and her parents to help her stay safe.
- Persistent worry resulting from a desire to be perfect: Jordan, 50, takes a leave of absence from work and enters therapy to deal with his excessive worrying. He is a “perfectionist” and very self-critical if he completes any work assignment less than perfectly. When he feels that he has not completed an assignment perfectly, he worries about looking bad or sloppy, receiving a reprimand from his boss, or potentially being fired for turning in poor-quality work, and he often stays late to review his work and projects. Therapy helps him recognize his deeply rooted lifelong need to please his parents, which has turned him into a workaholic. Jordan's therapist helps him gain an understanding of his own needs and desires and work through his fear of failure so that he can allow himself to enjoy life.
- Freeman, D., & Freeman, J. (2014, January 9). Don't worry, be happy: Overcoming worry may be key to mental health. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/jan/09/worry-happy-mental-health.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). (n.d.). HelpGuide.org. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/generalized_anxiety_disorder.htm.
- McCoy, D. (2002). The Evolution of Worry. Retrieved from http://www.psychnet-uk.com/x_new_site/readers_articles/worry.html.
- Sollitto, M. (2010, December 11). Sick with worry: How thoughts affect your health. Retrieved from http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/health-problems-caused-by-stress-143376.htm.
Last updated: 07-03-2015