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What, Me Worry?

IMAGE Jerri knew she worried too much. She worried about her children. She worried about traveling. She even worried about worrying. "All my life people have called me a worrywart," says the mother of two. "I thought that was just the way I was."

Fear, anxiety, and stress—such as that exhibited by Jerri—are all components of worry, but can you worry too much? Having awareness is one thing, but persistent doubts that never leave your mind are not. Over time, worries take their toll on your mind, body, and quality of life.

Is It a Blessing in Disguise?

Worry is typically defined in negative terms. However, some level is not only normal, it is actually helpful. Worry is can be an alarm system and you need some to be alive and healthy. It may direct your thoughts and actions into a positive direction. There are times when worrying can help you solve, or even avoid, problems. But, when the alarm goes off for no reason or the level stays too high for too long, problems may arise.

The trick is to use your worry for the greater good. In other words, when worry strikes, deal with it head on, or move on and let it go.

How Does the Body Respond to Worry?

Worry causes a chemical reaction in the body, triggering the release of stress hormones that prepare you to respond to a dangerous situation by fighting or running away. With worry though, the dangers are often imagined rather than real.

Doubts and fears waste time and drain your energy. Added to that, negative thoughts release stress hormones that can adversely affect your health, like your immune system.

Excess worry can affect your ability to sleep at night and increases your overall level of anxiety. All this affects your physical health, your ability to act effectively, or your ability to navigate daily life.

Who Are the Worriers?

Worry is often a learned behavior. Most of us are taught to worry. How we worry depends on how we grew up and what we were exposed to. Other people begin worrying more after a life trauma occurs, making them fear a repeat of the incident. In some it's genetic, meaning you're predisposed to the behavior.

How do you know when your worrying crosses the line? You'll know when it starts affecting your life. Your stress levels will be higher and you will be less focused on things you need to be attentive to.

Is It An Anxiety Disorder?

Chronic, unchecked worry can indicate an underlying condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). At their extremes, both of these disorders are characterized by unfounded worry that is so severe it can prevent people from functioning in everyday life.

There are some important differences between the two. Those with GAD usually demonstrate a lifetime pattern of chronic worry about common, everyday stressors, such as health, work, and family, but to an overwhelming degree. People suffering from OCD have persistent, obtrusive thoughts focusing on one particular area, such as excessive worry about germs. Those with OCD often rely on rituals like repeated handwashing.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, have a talk with your doctor. A combination of therapy and medication has proven effective in reducing anxiety.

What Do I Do Now?

If you aren't suffering from an anxiety disorder but want to minimize your worry, look at the degree to which you use worry as a motivator. For instance, if you use worry to motivate yourself to perform your best at work, refocus on rewards instead of punishments. Envision how great it will feel finish a project on time rather than focusing on the approaching deadline.

Other tips to help you diminish worry include:

  • Set aside some worry time—Address your worries during a specific time of day. Try to do at the same time in a quiet, comfortable place. Use this time to worry about anything you want. When your time is up, move on to your next task. If something comes up later, write it down and make a note to worry about it during your next worry time period.
  • Get the facts—When you worry, do you have a good reason? Do some research and get information. Worries can be based on myth, not fact. Once you have the facts, your worries may disappear.
  • Make a plan of action—Think through what you can solve and accept what you can't. Make a plan for worries you can resolve. Having a plan will ease your mind. For those you can't, try to get at the root of the worry. Is it realistic? Is it out of your control? Some things will be out of your control. It's a normal part of life, so find a way to accept them.

Physical factors such as getting enough sleep, eating properly, and exercising also make a big difference in the amount of worry you experience. When your body is run down, you're more susceptible to letting your mind get carried away. For some, prayer and meditation may be a calming force. If none of these methods is helpful, the next step is to consult with a professional.

Though it's not easy to break the worry habit, it is possible—depending on how hard you're willing to work. You can overcome constant worry and improve your quality of life in the process.

  • Anxiety Disorders Association of America

  • Mental Health America

  • Canadian Mental Health Association

  • Mental Health Canada

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated August 25, 2015. Accessed September 22, 2015.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Anxiety Disorders Association of America website. Available at: Updated June 2015. Accessed September 22, 2015.

  • How to stop worrying. Helpguide website. Available at: Updated August 2015. Accessed September 22, 2015.