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Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying

When Is Worry Too Much?

Last modified: 
16/03/2012 - 15:58

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Most people will worry if an unpleasant event has just happened and it involved something or someone very important to them. Suddenly losing your money, having a hurtful argument with someone close to you, having an automobile accident, or making a mistake, will naturally result in your mind trying to cope with the feelings that those events aroused.

Similarly, you will probably worry if a highly probable unwanted event is coming your way. Your mind may try to work out how to avoid a bad outcome if:

  • You have to drive in very bad weather
  • A sudden large expense occurs
  • There is real evidence that your spouse is no longer as loving as he/she used to be
  • You are facing an important challenge at work or in your social life where poor performance on your part is a real possibility

If worrying is a natural response of the mind to disagreeable events that have happened or have some likelihood of happening, when is worry undesirable? How much worry is too much?

There is no absolute answer to this question, but there are some good general guidelines. While thinking about a past bad event might be natural shortly after it occurs, constantly thinking about it long afterwards is not adaptive for you. If there is nothing that can be done about the past, it is time to let go of it and get on with your life.

When faced with upcoming problems, anticipating the future and planning ways to avoid bad events and create good events are adaptive behavior (everyday living skills that are learned), but constant thinking about possibilities is not useful.

Worry is a problem if:

  • Your thinking is causing intense emotional distress and has been interfering with your daily functioning for some time
  • In general, it is not quickly or clearly providing solutions.

In the case of "What if...?" worries, there is another useful guideline: Worry is natural only to the extent that the feared future event is really likely to happen.

  • If a spot occurs on your skin, it is wise to have a physician take a look at it. "What if it is cancer?" may be an adaptive thought that leads to the adaptive response of seeing a physician.
  • To worry about it very much in the meanwhile, after making an appointment with the physician, would be nonproductive, because the likelihood of actual cancer is low.
  • To worry about it after the physician says that it is not cancer is even less adaptive, because the likelihood of cancer is then extremely low.

So in general, worry is maladaptive if the things you worry about are not very likely to happen.

Even for future bad events that are quite likely to happen, worry may not be useful and will simply cause additional disturbance. This is the case when you have done all the problem solving you can do before the event and there is nothing more to do about it.

Of course it is natural for the mind to periodically be reminded about the upcoming event until it is over. But if you’ve done all you can reasonably do in preparation for it, to continue to allow yourself to constantly think about it merely causes more distress and interference with the rest of your life. So, although the worrying here may be natural, it is not helpful, and applying methods to reduce it would be useful.

Need To Know:

Worrying Is A Habit

It is important to remember that worrying is a habit. A habit is something that is repeated involuntarily.

Habits are developed because you have practiced doing them so often that you just start doing them without being aware of it. Worrying can become a mental habit. If worrying is a common problem for someone, it is partly because that person has done it a lot in the past. This fact will have some implications for how to reduce the habit of worrying.

 

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.