Why We Worry

By Victoria Stern

From longer article: Why We Worry, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2009

Chronic worrying stems from a craving for control. But the more we fret, the less our bodies are able to cope with stress

Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy writes in his book The Worry Cure that 38 percent of people say they worry every day, and more than 19 million Americans are chronic worriers. …

The young girl wanted to unburden herself about her problem. She told her doctor that she worried excessively and that she felt overwhelmed by these thoughts.

One memory that she described to Douglas Mennin, director of the Yale Anxiety and Mood Services at Yale University, was particularly telling. Her grandmother had shared intense feelings about the recent passing of a good friend.

As the young girl listened, her mind wandered to thoughts of her grandmother dying. The worry soon spiraled into concerns about the girl’s own death.

She became so disturbed, she cut short her visit to her grandmother and ran home.

Psychologists believe that worry, defined as a person’s negative thoughts about a future event, evolved as a constructive problem-solving behavior.

But excessive fretting—as happened with the girl—does more harm than good.

Chronic worriers operate under the misperception that their overthinking and attempts at controlling every situation allow them to problem-solve and plan for the future. Instead their thought pattern hinders cognitive processing and also causes overstimulation of emotion- and fear-processing areas in the brain.

The hypervigilance that is the result can lead to cardiovascular problems, ultimately rendering the body unable to cope properly with stress.

An improved understanding of how excessive worry (the thought-driven aspect), which is linked with anxiety (the emotional element), affects our mental and physical functions can help us cope with this often self-induced foible.

Craving Control

Worry began to draw the attention of researchers about 25 years ago, when they started to fine-tune their understanding of the spectrum of anxiety-related pathologies.

In the early 1980s psychologist Thomas Borkovec of Pennsylvania State University, a pioneer in this field, became interested in the trait while investigating sleep disorders. He found that intrusive cognitive activity at bedtime—worrying—was a factor in insomnia.

By 1990 Borkovec and his colleagues developed the Penn State Worry Questionnaire, a diagnostic tool that helped researchers show excessive fretting to be a feature of all anxiety disorders, especially generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Psychologists revised the official psychiatric guidelines (then the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III) to reflect this understanding, calling worry the cardinal feature of GAD and making chronic worry a recognized mental health problem.

It is now known to affect 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Borkovec defined three main components of garden-variety worry: overthinking, avoidance of negative outcomes and inhibition of emotions.

Mennin explains that worry piggybacks on humans’ innate tendency to think about the future: “they crave control.”

He says “chronic worriers see the world as an unsafe place and want to fight this sense of unrest.”

Overworriers feel that fretting gives them this control, and they tend to avoid situations they can’t have power over.

In a 1995 study Borkovec found that people agonized about matters that rarely occurred.

The participants, nonetheless, often reported that they believed the overthinking about a possible negative event had prevented it from taking place.

Unsurprisingly, worriers show increased activity in areas of the brain associated with executive functions, such as planning, reasoning and impulse control.

[See questionnaire below to help you be aware of how much you worry.]

Relax! Here’s How

Robert Leahy offers six simple tips and tricks you can use to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

1. Identify productive and unproductive worry

First, determine whether your worries will help you find practical solutions to a dilemma. If “yes, my worries can be constructive,” write a to-do list with explicit steps to help solve the problem.

If the answer is “no, my worries are not helping me,” use some of the techniques below to help deal with unproductive worries.

2. Keep an appointment with your worries

Write down your unproductive worries throughout the day and set aside a chunk of time, say 6 to 6:30 p.m., dedicated specifically to thinking about them. By 6, “you may find you’re not interested in those worries anymore,” Leahy says.

“Many people find that what they thought they needed an answer to earlier, they don’t care about later in the day.”

3. Learn to accept uncertainty

Worriers have a hard time accepting they can never have complete control in their lives. Leahy says that quietly repeating a worry for 20 minutes (“I may never fall asleep” or “I could lose my job”) reduces its power.

“Most people get bored by their worries and don’t even make it to 20 minutes,” he notes.

4. Be mindful

Mindfulness, a technique based on Buddhist teachings, preaches staying in the present moment and experiencing all emotions even when they are negative.

Leahy explains there are ways to be mindful throughout your day, while deeply immersed in your favorite song or in conversation with friends. Try living in the now by practicing deep breathing. Let your body relax and the tension in your muscles melt away.

5. Reframe your worry

What happens if a worry comes true? Could you survive losing your job or being dumped? Reframing how you evaluate disappointments in life can take the sting out of failure, Leahy says.

Create a positive spin by asking yourself what you have learned from your bad experiences. Make a list of things for which you are grateful.

6. Put worries in perspective

Examine past worries. Do you have a hard time remembering what they are?

Very likely this means that those worries never came true or that you were able to cope and forget, Leahy says.

See his book The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You.


The Benefits of Worry

If worry is an integral part of what makes us human, can it also serve a positive function?

Psychologist Graham Davey of the University of Sussex in England was one of the first experts to suggest potential plus sides to worry.

In a 1994 study Davey explored a range of consequences stemming from this natural tendency; he found people reported that although fretting can make things worse, it can also be constructive, helping to motivate them to take action, resolve problems and reduce anxiety.

More recent research supports the idea that elevated levels of worry can improve performance.

In 2005 psychologist Maya Tamir, then at Stanford University, showed that neurotic students were more likely to believe that increasing their level of worry when working on a cognitively demanding task, such as a test, would allow them to excel.

Worrying before the test indeed helped the more neurotic individuals do better, whereas the pretest level of worry did not particularly influence the overall experience or outcomes for the less neurotic participants.

Not only can worry benefit performance, but it may also encourage action.

A 2007 study in the journal Cognition and Emotion revealed that smokers may be more convinced to quit if they worry about the risks of smoking.

The promising results prompted the study authors to suggest potential strategies, such as having doctors remind smokers about the downsides, capitalizing on the worry-motivation relationship to encourage smokers to dispense with cigarettes.

Although it is difficult to determine the precise line between healthy, beneficial worry and unhealthy, detrimental worry, Michel Dugas, a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, likes to think of worry as a bell curve whereby moderate levels are associated with improved functioning, but excess levels are associated with a decline in performance.

Christine Calmes, a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Capitol Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Baltimore, believes that successful people operate a little higher on the worry scale.

As long as fretting doesn’t get the better of someone, it can work to his or her advantage. “It’s all about how people cope with the worry,” Calmes says.

“If it’s incapacitating, then it’s not okay.

“But if worrying motivates people to go above and beyond—put in longer hours, attend to details that others may miss—then it’s a good thing.”


Excerpt from The Worry Domains Questionnaire

For each item, you can assign a level of worry: Not at all; A little; Moderately; Quite a bit; Extremely.

As presented here, there is no score evaluation – this is published here as a way to become more aware of what you worry about.

“I worry …”

  • that my family will be angry with me or disapprove of something that I do
  • that I find it difficult to maintain a stable relationship
  • that I am unattractive
  • that I will lose close friends
  • that I am not loved
  • that I cannot be assertive or express my opinions
  • that I feel insecure
  • that others will not approve of me
  • that I lack confidence
  • that I might make myself look stupid
  • that my future job prospects are not good
  • that I’ll never achieve my ambitions
  • that I have no concentration
  • that life may have no purpose
  • that I haven’t achieved much
  • that I will not keep my workload up to date
  • that I don’t work hard enough
  • that I leave work unfinished
  • that I will be late for an appointment
  • that I make mistakes at work
  • that my money will run out
  • that financial problems will restrict holidays and travel
  • that I am not able to afford things

[Original: Tallis, F., Eysenck, M. W., & Mathews, A. (1992). A questionnaire for the measurement of nonpathological worry. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 161-168.]

[Questions are from article [PDF]: Joormann, J. and Stoeber, J. (1997) Measuring facets of Worry: A LISREL analysis of the Worry Domains Questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 23 (5). pp. 827-837. ISSN 0191-8869.]

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