The other week, I had an initial session with a client referred to the Incline Village Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, for the treatment of her “excessive worry.”
She reported that she worries every day, sleeps around 2-3 hours each night, has frequent upset stomach, headaches, fatigue, and difficulties with her personal relationships.
She feels that her worries are spiraling out of control, and gave me several reasons why worry is ruining her life.
People who worry excessively understand the negative consequences associated with worry. The problem is, these individuals also endorse strongly held beliefs concerning the positive benefits associated with worrying, which is what makes worrying a double-edged sword.
Why do those who spend hours worrying each day and 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?”
The answer I hear repeatedly involves two themes: (1) “Worrying works,” and (2) “Worrying means that I am a responsible person.”
Let’s take a look at both of these beliefs regarding the benefits of worrying.
We first need to better understand how the client defines, “works.” Typically this means is that chronic worriers believe that worrying prevents negative outcomes from occurring.
For example, one of my clients spends a lot of time and energy worrying about the possibility that the airline will lose her luggage each time she travels.
She begins this “worry process” weeks before her trip, and continues until she sees her luggage at the baggage counter stating, “thank God.”
Thank God, her luggage wasn’t lost? No, thank God she worried long and hard about this potential negative outcome.
This type of thinking reinforces her belief that had she not spent so much time worrying about her luggage being lost, surely it would have landed at the wrong airport.
She believed that worrying resulted in keeping her personal items safe.
WORRYING REPRESENTS BEING RESPONSIBLE
Those who chronically worry believe that this mental activity is synonymous with being “responsible.”
The same client of mine also believes that if she did not spend so much time worrying about her children’s health, then she would not consider herself to be a responsible parent.
Therefore, she will take them to the doctor on a monthly basis, just to be sure that they have not contracted the latest flu going around.
She insists on these frequent check-ups because she believes it is what any responsible mother should do, just in case.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT?
I refer to those who worry excessively as “what if thinkers,” who behave in “just in case scenarios.”
Worriers not only hold a set of beliefs concerning the negative consequences that worry produces, they also endorse beliefs regarding the benefits of worrying.
The problem is, these positive beliefs concerning the worry process greatly outweigh their negative beliefs regarding the function of worrying.
Those who worry excessively equate worrying with:
• Having one’s guard up,
• Being better prepared for anticipated negative life events; and
• Feeling less threatened when dealing with surprises.
Saying to a worrier, “don’t worry about it,” is interpreted by the worrier as being synonymous with letting their guard down.
What happens when one lets their guard down? They feel vulnerable, which leads to overestimating threat, followed by anxious arousal, which culminates in the display of reassurance-seeking behaviors in an attempt to alleviate their anxiety.
CHALLENGE YOUR WORRY BELIEFS
Rather then give advice such as “don’t worry about it,” I recommend 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: “Have there been times in the past when I’ve effectively dealt with an unexpected crisis without worrying about it before it occurred?”
Concerning the belief that worrying equates to being a responsible person, what if you asked 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?”
Additional beliefs that play a role in maintaining chronic worry would 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; and
• 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.
In future articles, I’ll discuss additional issues related to worry, and specific anxiety disorders.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California and is co-executive director of the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.