Why We Worry: A Double-Edged Sword

Worried man can't sleepThe other day, I had an initial session with a person referred to my clinic for the treatment of her chronic worry. She spent the first 15 minutes reporting that she worries all day, every day, and her worrisome thoughts are spiraling out of control. She also stated that she sleeps around two hours each night and has frequent stomach upset, headaches, fatigue, and is experiencing difficulties with her relationships at work and home. She gave me several reasons why worry is ruining her life.

People who worry excessively fully understand the negative consequences associated with worry. They are the first to admit that worrying is a full-time job. (As if one job is not enough!) The problem is, these individuals also typically endorse strongly held beliefs concerning the benefits associated with worrying, which is what makes this process a double-edged sword.

You might wonder why those who spend countless hours worrying each day continue this process day after day, understanding the negative impact it is having on their lives. The answer becomes more apparent when those who worry are asked, “What positive function does worrying serve for you? What is the payoff for worrying so much each day?” The answer I hear repeatedly consistently involves two themes: (1) “worrying works,” and, (2) “worrying is the responsible thing to do.”

Let’s take a brief look at both of these beliefs regarding the benefits of worrying.

  • “Worrying works”: We first need to better understand how the worrier defines “works.” Well, typically what this means is that chronic worriers firmly believe that worrying prevents negative outcomes from occurring. For example, one person in my care spends a good deal of time and energy worrying about the possibility that the airline she flies will lose her luggage each time she travels. She begins this “worry process” weeks before a trip, and continues it until the moment she sees her luggage at the baggage counter. Upon spotting her luggage, she states, “Thank God.” Thank God her luggage wasn’t lost? No, thank God she worried long and hard about this potential negative outcome. This form of magical thinking reinforces her belief that had she not spent so much energy worrying about the luggage being lost, surely it would have landed at the wrong airport. In her mind, worrying resulted in keeping her personal items safe.
  • “Worrying represents being responsible”: Many people who worry a great deal believe that this mental activity is synonymous with being “responsible.” The same woman discussed earlier believes that if she did not spend so much time worrying about her children’s health, she would not consider herself to be a responsible parent. Therefore, she makes it a point to routinely question her children concerning any unusual physical symptoms they may be experiencing, and will take them to the doctor on a monthly basis just to be sure that they have not been a victim of the latest bug going around. She insists on these frequent medical check-ups because she believes it is what any responsible parent would do. Remember an earlier article I wrote for GoodTherapy.org in which I refer to those who worry excessively as “what-if thinkers” who behave in “just-in-case scenarios”? If one also adheres to the belief that worrying represents a positive personality characteristic such as being responsible, we now have an additional factor which serves to strengthen the worry process.

Those who engage in chronic worry not only hold a set of beliefs concerning the negative consequences that worry produces (loss of sleep, chronic headaches, stomach upset, relationship problems, etc.), they also endorse strongly held beliefs regarding the benefits of worrying. The problem is, these positive beliefs concerning the worry process greatly outweigh negative beliefs regarding the function of worrying. Indeed, those who worry excessively would equate worrying with:

  • Having one’s guard up
  • Being better prepared for anticipated negative life events
  • Feeling less threatened when dealing with surprises

Saying to a worrier, “Don’t worry about it,” which is the most common advice friends and family tend to offer, is interpreted by the worrier as being synonymous with letting his or her guard down and being irresponsible. What happens when one lets his or her guard down? He/she feels vulnerable, which leads to overestimating threat, followed by anxious arousal, which ultimately culminates in the display of various reassurance-seeking behaviors in an attempt to alleviate anxiety.

Challenge Your Worry Beliefs

Rather than give advice such as, “Don’t worry about it,” I recommend that you help those you know (or yourself) shift the manner in which worrisome thoughts are interpreted. In terms of challenging the belief that worrying prevents negative outcomes, the next time this thought is triggered, remember to counter this belief by asking yourself the following questions: “Have there been times in the past when I’ve effectively dealt with an unexpected life crisis without worrying about it before it occurred? Have bad events happened in my life, even though I worried about them ahead of time?”

With respect to the belief that worrying equates to being a responsible person, what if you challenged that belief by asking yourself, “Do I have friends who I consider to be responsible individuals, and do I view them as people who worry as much as I do? Would they describe themselves as chronic worriers?”

If the answer to these questions is no, you may need to reconsider what characteristics define a responsible person in your eyes. You may also need to decide if the formula “worry = responsible personality” only applies to you.

Additional beliefs that play a role in maintaining chronic worry include:

  • Worrying is the same as problem-solving
  • Worrying will help me to better deal with emotions such as sadness or anger should an anticipated horrible outcome actually occur
  • Worrying helps motivate me to get things done

The worry process truly is a double-edged sword, a love/hate relationship. Let go of the hate and embrace the love. Perhaps in a future article I’ll discuss in more detail how the beliefs mentioned above serve to further maintain chronic worry, as well as specific methods for modifying these thought patterns. Alternatively, maybe I will never get around to writing such an article. At any rate, don’t worry about it … or will you?

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Barry Barmann, PhD, Anxiety Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Grantly

    November 13th, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    It is a full time job but not necessarily the one I want

  • Dr Barmann

    November 14th, 2014 at 6:59 PM

    but that’s the point, don’t make it another job. It’s time to quit that one, and just stick with what’s important

  • Penny

    November 16th, 2014 at 4:39 PM

    What if you suffer chronic anxiety and have been diagnosed with same. This is a mental health issue and results in physical symptoms.

  • Grady

    November 14th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    Well the times when I slack off a little and just try not to worry then at a point I start to feel like I am being a little worthless, like if I cared more about the situation then I would worry a little more. What can you do with that sort of internal guilt trip that we all from time to time subject ourselves to?

  • Dr Barmann

    November 14th, 2014 at 7:03 PM

    Be careful not to be equate worrying with being responsible. Too many people use the formula worrying equals responsibility. There’s a big difference between being responsible and having a core belief regarding over responsibility. I’ll be talking about core believes in an upcoming article.

  • Sean

    November 14th, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Of course I am going to worry because I am the family breadwinner so there are always dozens of things that I have to think about and get accomplished on a daily basis to ensure that my entire family is taken care of.

    I would love to be able to go to sleep at night and have nothing to worry about or just go to work every day because I love my job but i do not have that good fortune. I am a man who struggles to make ends meet for the family and therefore I think that I am going to worry until that is no longer my reality.

  • Mike

    November 14th, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    I think this article has a lot of insight, but it seems to presume a fairly high degree of consciousness and insight on the part of the client. That was not me when I started therapy. Also, I have OCD which leads to worry and negative rumination for “no reason” — in the sense OCD is a strong compulsion to repeat anxious thoughts that exists independently of belief systems, life context, etc. It just goes and goes until medication helps or the person reaches a generally higher degree of abilities allowing for more insight and choice (no quick fix). That has been my experience, anyway. Some cases of OCD are more limited in scope and don’t involve 24/7 obsessions. Perhaps those are the cases that can be helped by CBT more immediately.

  • ShinethruMe

    November 14th, 2014 at 8:06 PM

    Your answer to the worrying problem is to accept the thibgs u cant change and fix the things u can. .Pray dalily about the problem and let go of it. .Yes i understand that we are all not as wealthy as the other. .that doesnt matter u dont need money to relieve your worrien…u need to let go of it and change the things u can. .

  • Laura

    November 15th, 2014 at 5:13 AM

    I enjoy reading the articles on this website and usually find them informative and insightful but this article was not. I have been chronically worrying about my son and yes, it has produced many of the negative outcomes stated. However, I KNOW that worrying will not change what will happen, I KNOW that worrying is affecting my health and relationships and needs to be stopped but because of my anxiety and intrusive thoughts I can’t stop. I have a reason to worry about my son because he isn’t in a good place and has many issues and I’m scared that it will turn out tragic. I have a fear of losing my child. My worry has always been focused on the safety of my kids but to an unhealthy level. I don’t worry over insignificant things like losing my luggage. I also worry about health issues, often misinterpreting benign physical symptoms as serious. Worrying to this extent is a debilitating form of anxiety and OCD in the form of intrusive thoughts and speaking from someone that suffers from it, is not something that feels productive or responsible, motivating or problem solving in any way.

  • Theresa

    November 16th, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    I too worry a lot about my grown son, also with problems, very serious, I understsnd, it’s not easy to stop. I think women, moms , do more worrying..

  • lang

    November 15th, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    I kind of feel like this is my lot in life because my wife, she worries about nothing. So I guess I sort of feel like I have to do enough for the both of us.

  • Mike

    November 15th, 2014 at 6:16 PM

    Laura, I’m with you. For some people the compulsion/obsession to worry is so strong that it’s simply not an available choice to drop it. After many years of growing as a person and gaining more insight and consciousness I am making good progress, but there was no quick fix. One thing that’s been helping a lot is a form of meditation called Open Focus. It’s a series of guided exercises. It does wonders for OCD. I highly recommend it for anyone who feels totally at the mercy of their obsessions.

  • Renee

    November 16th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    I’m so consumed with worry that all I do is cry my husband recently went to prison and I lost both of his incomes and all my medical insurance the bills are still the same but the income has dropped…He will spend the rest of his life in there due to the fact he molested my daughter I am consumed with guilt over that also.

  • Penny

    November 16th, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    I suffer chronic anxiety is this not a mental health issue. Diagnosed by a psychiatrist. This leads to worrying about nothing in particular ? Nausea shaking burning skin. Many other physical reactions

  • Dawn

    November 16th, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    I am a constant worryer. And it is triggered by upsetting images that just pop in my head out of nowhere. And yes I believe that if I don’t worry about it then those images will come true. I’m in panic just writing that. It can’t be said. My youngest son is who I worry about the most. He has two babies who he loves very much and is going through a separation with his wife. He is very depressed. I have an older son who I also worry about just not as much. I have many other worries like illnesses financial and death.

  • Heather

    November 16th, 2014 at 5:54 PM

    I have this problem I know it is a problem I worry to the point it has affected my daily life people tell me not to worry about everything but I don’t know how not to worry I can’t even watch the news I worry for the people things happen to I am am very unhappy person because of this if someone can tell you how to get to the point of letting things go I am up for any advice I have always been this way since I was a small child

  • jake

    November 17th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    For me worrying is kind of like me sorting through the pros and the cons and coming up with some decisions.
    It does not necessarily feel good, but hey, there are always things that have to be worked out and this is I guess my way of doing that.

  • thatgirl1269

    November 18th, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    As a life-long worrier, and now a sufferer of major depression, panic attacks and GAD, I totally relate to this article. I have put in place methods to help keep the panic/worry (mostly) at bay (mostly through meditation, acceptance & gratitude exercises), but they still pop up in the back of my mind all the time, even though I know logically that worrying about XX isn’t going to change anything. We are such complex creatures.

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