Worry occurs when our minds dwell on our problems. People often describe worrying as a “chain” or “spiral” of repetitive, negative thoughts that may be difficult to redirect. The fears we think about could be present, probable, or purely hypothetical.
Worry may be unavoidable at times, as most people tend to fret about some aspect of their lives. However, chronic or excessive worrying can affect our physical and emotional health. In some cases, worries may interfere with daily life. Frequent worrying may be a sign of a mental health diagnosis such as generalized anxiety. People who wish to manage their worrying may find it helpful to speak to a therapist.
WHY DO WE WORRY?
Worries are not always bad. In certain situations, worry and anxiety can lead us to make healthy, productive decisions. For example, worrying about finances can help prevent us from spending money recklessly. Worrying about basic safety may inspire us to lock our doors and windows at night.
However, worries might also reflect our reluctance to take action. Imagining things that might go wrong can snowball into obsession. Our preoccupation with potential outcomes may make it easier to avoid the actual situation. In this way, persistent worry can become a tool to avoid problems that we feel unable to solve.
People who worry might believe that imagining potential scenarios will enable them to plan for a negative outcome or prevent it from happening. But this extent of worrying is rarely beneficial. In fact, persistent worries sometimes cause us more distress than the scenario we fretted about in the first place.
The Effects of Excessive Worrying
When our worries persist, they can prevent relaxation and enjoyment of life. They may also have a significant effect on mental health. Some people may worry to the extent that they become unable to focus on daily tasks. Others might have panic attacks, experience insomnia, or develop unhealthy eating habits.
Worry may also reduce our physical health. When our imaginations produce a frightening scenario, our bodies release chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, just like they would if the imagined scenario were actually taking place. These chemicals help us react to danger on a short-term basis, but they can hurt our bodies in the long-term.
Chronic worrying may cause physical symptoms such as:
- Faster blood-clotting and rising blood pressure
- Muscle tension and aches
- Reduced immunity to illnesses
Worrying vs. Rumination
Worrying and rumination are both repetitive forms of negative thought. However, these terms have some key differences.
- Worrying tends to be oriented toward a future scenario with an uncertain outcome. It is often rooted in fear. Example: “What if I fail the science test tomorrow?”
- Rumination is often focused on known events in the past. It is often based on regret or indignation. Example: “I’m so dumb for failing the science test last week.”
Worrying and rumination often feed into each other. For instance, someone who is ruminating about a bad breakup may shift to worrying that they will never find love. But these symptoms can also appear separately, so it is important to distinguish between the two.
In general, worrying tends to be associated with clinical anxiety. Meanwhile, rumination is typically associated with depression. Worrying and rumination are symptoms; anxiety and depression are the diagnoses which often drive those symptoms.
WORRY AND MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Excessive worry is a symptom in many mental health diagnoses. However, worries can manifest differently depending on the condition.
- Generalized anxiety: You more or less worry about everything.
- Phobia: You are very worried about one specific thing that few other people are concerned about.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): You worry to the point of obsession, and these worries seem to only go away after you perform a certain ritual or behavior.
- Posttraumatic stress (PTSD): Your worries revolve around trauma from your past.
- Psychosis: You worry about seemingly impossible things like mind control. Your worries persist despite evidence that they have not, cannot, and will not happen.
If left unchecked, chronic worrying can make mental health issues worse. However, you don’t need to have a diagnosis to get help for worrying. Therapy can offer support no matter what your specific worries are. There is no shame in getting the help you need.
- Freeman, D., & Freeman, J. (2014, January 9). Don't worry, be happy: Overcoming worry may be key to mental health. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/jan/09/worry-happy-mental-health
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). (n.d.). 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
- Worry and rumination. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://mct-institute.co.uk/worry-and-rumination