Worry: How Is it For You?
Why not take a moment to explore your own beliefs about worrying and whether you regard your own worrying as negative, positive, or a mixture of the two. An example of negative beliefs is that your worrying makes you ill, that it might be getting worse, and that you are losing control. By contrast positive beliefs might be that your worrying keeps you focused, helps you to identify potential problems before they occur and is necessary in order to keep you sharp and on top of things.
Whether or not you consider your worrying as negative, positive, or both, the fact remains that it is still worry. People who worry about worrying often adopt what is known as a ‘what if’ style of thinking. As the worry progresses it becomes more negative in nature. Here’s an example:
Tom is a well regarded science teacher with 10 years of experience under his belt. The train he commutes to and from work is often stuffy and crowded and this evening someone kept sniffing and sneezing. A string of worrying thoughts begin to unfold in Tom’s mind. ‘What if I catch a cold, or flu?’ he thinks. ‘I’ll have to take time off work.
As a worrier Tom’s imagination leads him along a path that becomes more catastrophic in nature. ‘I could lose my chances of a promotion’ and could build to a crescendo. ‘I could even lose my job.’
Tom’s story is a fiction but it represents a form of extreme and uncontrollable worry that won’t diminish. Persistent worrying like this tells us that Tom’s mood is increasingly negative and he believes that his problems will worsen and can’t be solved. Negative thinking as a feature of worry is something I’ll address a little later.
It’s also clear that Tom’s worry is pointless but it demonstrates two common characteristics of worry in that it is (a) unimportant and (b) unlikely. Tom may or may not catch a cold, but how important is that? Also, how realistic are his thoughts about losing his job?
But can some worrying be good for us? It seems there’s a balance to be struck. The negative side of excessive worry is that it can be emotionally debilitating. There is also a physical toll that can include a higher heart rate and sinus arrhythmia - a naturally occurring variation in heart rate during a breathing cycle. Chronic worrying can also trigger the stress response, which is known to have a number of health implications.
On the plus side there is always the possibility that it is our concerns over the consequences of certain activities that keeps us safe and healthy. The motivation for many smokers to quit is often based around their concerns over cancer, heart problems and general health issues. The same might be said for diet, voluntary screening, breast self-examination and so on. Clearly there is a dividing line between health concerns and chronic worrying, but they are underpinned by the same basic mechanisms. The old saying “ignorance is bliss” may be true up to a point, but you mustn’t view your capacity to worry as entirely without use or merit.
This post was adapted from my latest book Overcoming Worry and Anxiety (Sheldon Press) available in paperback and eBook formats.