Got Anxiety? Does worrying help when expecting the worst?
Mary B. Barmann, LMFT
Many of the people we see in our private practice state that they worry “all the time”, and have been a worrier “since the day I was born.
They are correct about this, at least to a certain degree. If you ask a chronic worrier to list the disadvantages of worrying, they will have absolutely no problem in doing so. Their list often includes statements such as:
It affects me physically — stomach upset, chronic headaches, sore muscles, etc.
I only sleep around 2 hours a night.
My spouse is getting sick of listening to my worries.
It’s hard for me to stay focused at work.
I’m exhausted all day.
And the list goes on and on. We then ask the question, “Why would you engage in worrying so often, despite all the disadvantages of thinking in this manner?”
Suddenly, the person gets very quiet, thinks a bit, and then states, “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just wired to be a worrier.”
Although it’s true that anxiety is one of the most genetic conditions treated by therapists, there are a host of other explanations why certain people become worriers.
When we press a little harder for additional reasons why someone remains a chronic worrier, we begin to better understand their strongly endorsed beliefs concerning the ADVANTAGES of worrying.
Worriers truly believe that despite how exhausting the process of worrying can be, they also believe that to worry is a good thing.
Research, along with our many years of clinical experience, indicates that these individuals view worry as analogous to having “one’s guard up.”
Thus, when a friend gives the typical advice we hear every day, “Don’t worry about it,” the worrier interprets this advice as needing to LOWER THEIR GUARD, and become less hyper vigilant.
The very thought of lowering one’s guard, results in leaving the worrier with a strong sense of feeling vulnerable to threat; that is, the content of their worry (e.g., a relationship, finances, negative social evaluation, etc.).
Let’s take a closer look at this belief concerning the positive aspect of worrying.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
The majority of chronic worriers strongly believe that if they overestimate the probability of encountering threat, and then worry about “expecting the worst,” this way of thinking will somehow result in being “better prepared” when disaster strikes.
It’s as if worry was a type of vaccination against experiencing strong negative emotions at some point in the future.
These are individuals who do NOT like the feeling of being optimistic — it simply feels too risky. Surprises are the enemy, even good surprises, such as a birthday party they were not told about ahead of time.
Watch a worrier who has just made an optimistic statement. What’s the next thing they do? If you said, “knock on wood,” you guessed right. In other words, making an optimistic statement, immediately followed by knocking on wood, is a type of “just in case” way of responding, hoping to prevent their optimistic statement from backfiring on them. In their own counterintuitive way, they further believe that to think in a pessimistic manner (worrying) will result in positive outcomes (i.e., prevent bad things from happening).
If those of you reading this article can identify with this way of thinking, we strongly encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:
Have you ever felt anxious because you made an optimistic statement, or had an optimistic thought? Come on, be honest.
Have you ever experienced a difficult life event, such as the death of a loved one, void of emotional upset, because you engaged in a great deal of worry about it ahead of time?
Have you experienced difficult life events you did NOT anticipate ahead of time? Did you discover that you somehow found a way to handle your emotional upset despite your lack of “worry preparation?”
Have you ever worried to a significant degree about events that never occurred, yet went on to think, “Well, NOT YET they haven’t?”
In the past, did worry act to buffer your anxiety or sadness once a negative outcome did occur, or did you simply put yourself through the experience twice; worrying before its occurrence, and then again after the negative life event materialized?
Oh, one final question — is all the time and effort you spend worrying, really worth it, or could you have spent that time pursuing activities you truly enjoy?
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Nevada & California. Visit anxietytreatment.com to learn more.