Worry occurs in your mind and can be a helpful process to solve a problem or motivate you to do what you need to do.
However, this mental process can be problematic if it takes up too much of your time, does not lead to solutions, or if it leads to rumination or mental health conditions such as GAD or other anxiety disorders.
This article discusses the cognitive process of worry, gives tips on how to deal with it, and pinpoints when worry becomes problematic.
What is worry?
Worry is a process of thoughts that occurs in your mind. The content of the thoughts relates to possible negative outcomes that may or may not happen in the future.
Everyday things that people worry about include money (or lack of), their health, and the future, and the one thing all these worries have in common is an unknown outcome.
For people who have difficulty with worry, a second commonality is having difficulty tolerating the uncertainty that arises from not knowing for sure what will happen in the future.
The pattern of worry
All worry follows the same pattern.
- It will occur in the future.
- You cannot know the outcome at this present time.
Faced with this, your brain can simulate plausible scenarios, focusing on the worst probable scenario. For example, Paul will give a best man’s speech at his friend’s wedding and be worried about the speech.
- Will people find it funny?
- What if no one laughs?
- Is it offensive?
- What if he forgets what to say?
All of Paul’s questions are related to an unknown outcome. How well his speech will be received and his ability to deliver. These types of worries or future scenarios motivate Paul to research his audience (the wedding guests) to help him decide what is and is not appropriate to say in front of the people and what stories he can recite. The different outcomes also motivate Paul to rehearse his speech, which leaves him feeling prepared and confident before the wedding.
In this example, fretting gave Paul different adverse outcomes or things that could go wrong, and he problem solved by addressing the scenarios and preparing well in advance. Worrying simulated all scenarios, which motivated Paul to research and rehearse, and could be considered a helpful process in this example.
When is worrying not helpful?
When worrying is repetitive and does not help the person solve a problem, thus, does not reach an endpoint that allows the person to move on. I do not consider this worrying helpful, for example.
If Paul dwelled so much about his best man’s speech, this could be problematic if he could not problem solve. In the run-up to the wedding, if his thoughts were consumed with everything that could go wrong, without taking steps to ensure they did not, such as preparation, he might not give the type of speech he would wish to or worse, he might want to avoid it altogether, or rush through it, red-faced and with almost a whisper.
Focusing only on negative thoughts without taking action to solve the problem can lead to stress.
Is worrying a mental health condition?
Symptoms of worry
The act of worry, if healthy and helps to solve problems, should not give you any symptoms of note. However, if you dwell on things to the extent it interferes with your quality of life, you might feel the symptoms that are associated with anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder such as
- difficulty sleeping
- feeling on edge
What makes us worry?
Any event that occurs in the future where you do not know the outcome can trigger worry. The act of worry is your mind’s attempt to run through all scenarios to help you cope with both the unpredictability and the uncertainty of the future event.
How do I stop worrying?
Track your worries
Worrying can be so chronic for some people that they do not realise when they brood. Try to pay more attention to when and what you are dwelling on and write it down.
For example, brooding about
- job interview
- paying bills on time
- what if something happens to me in the future and I can’t pay my bills or look after myself?
The first two types of worries mentioned above are practical, and you can do something about them, whereas the third is hypothetical.
Problem-solving scenarios you can do something about
Upcoming job interview. Once your mind has finished running through all the adverse outcomes, you can start to problem solve by preparing for the interview, finding out about the company, and practising questions you could be asked. In this example, your time is spent preparing for the future event rather than focusing on the worry.
If you are concerned about paying bills on time, you can prepare, budget, and track your spending after setting aside money you will need to pay bills in the future. Setting a reminder or writing the date down can help ensure you pay bills on time.
In both examples, worry occurs about an unknown outcome of a future event, but rather than ruminating, they take steps to prepare for the coming event.
Worries that you can do nothing about – hypothetical worries
After tracking your worries, if you find you have a theoretical concern, such as what if something happens to me in the future, what if something goes wrong? To prevent stress or anxiety in the future, I would recommend mindfulness.
Try it now
When you catch yourself with a hypothetical or what-if type of worry, bring your attention back to what is happening. You do this by.
Paying attention to your surroundings, what you see, what can you hear, and what can you smell.
Focus on your breath, count your breath 1 through to 10, or focus on the in-and out-breath.
Healthline gives some tips on using mediations and guided imagery that might help.
The mental process of worrying in itself is not a concern. Indeed it can motivate some people to take action. However, if your brooding is interfering with your quality of life, you can take steps such as trying mindfulness, which will help. If your worries are already at the stage of generalised anxiety disorder, CBT can help you with this. My introductory series on working with anxiety shall give you practical examples on how to use CBT.