Why We Worry

Where anxiety comes from—and what we can do about it

Why Are Worriers So Bad At Worrying?

Why are worriers are not very good at finding answers to problems?

Every day we’re faced with problems we need to resolve and deal with. Sometimes little ones, sometimes big ones. It’s a basic fact of life that life needs dealing with! Many of us are happy to turn our minds to these problems – “Why is there no coffee in the house?” “Why isn’t my internet connection working?” “Why am I stuck in a traffic jam?” Note that these examples are all problems that are current. They are what we would call “daily hassles” in that they are bothersome but relatively minor issues in the big scheme of things. Many people take these in their stride. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, then “thinking through” what to do to get out of the jam is a sensible and adaptive thing to do. Interestingly, we get pots of these types of daily hassles every week.

But now what happens if we start to think up a few more problems that might happen, just to add to these. This is the good old “What if…?” approach to worrying. Let’s not just be content dealing with the problems that have happened – let’s invent some. For example, “How am I going to get to the supermarket tonight if my partner doesn’t get the car back to me?” “What if the cheese biscuits I’ve bought for tonight’s dinner party are stale?” Well, it’s good to be thinking ahead and trying to sort out potential problems before they occur. But let’s be clear – we don’t want to spend time on these problems if the probability of them occurring is very remote.

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This is one problem that chronic worriers do have. They have a tendency to inflate the probability that something bad is going to happen, and this tendency means that they generate loads more potential “What if…?” worries than nonworriers. Why do worriers have this tendency? Well, it’s a chicken and egg problem. Do they worry because they’ve inflated the importance of something minor, or have they inflated the importance of something minor because they’re worriers? Evidence suggests it’s the latter. Studies have shown that the more you worry about something, the more likely you are to think it’s going to happen (but you’re not more likely to make it happen!). So the more you worry about your partner having an accident on the way home from work, the more likely you are to think it’ll happen. This seems to be caused by a very simple psychological process called heuristics. That is, the more reasons you can think of for something possibly happening, the more likely you think it will be to happen. Catastrophic worrying is a good example of this, where a worrier will think though all the possible chains of events associated with a worry, and so generate lots of reasons why they think it might happen – this only serves to convince the worrier that it will happen.

But worriers do so much worrying that you think they’d be good at it, wouldn’t you? Well, worriers are certainly good at thinking up reasons why future bad things might happen, but they’re not very good at finding answers to problems. It’s not so much that worriers don’t have good problem-solving skills – their actual problem-solving skills appear to be as good as anyone’s - it’s that they have very low confidence in their ability to solve problems. This means that worriers have problems deciding on solutions to problems, and even greater difficulty putting possible solutions into practice.

There is also a rather sad consequence to this poor problem-solving confidence that worriers display. In a number of studies we carried out with worriers, we found that the more that worriers perseverated over a particular worry the more that some self-depreciating themes began to appear in their stream of worry. These would be themes associated with personal inadequacy, failure, lack of control, regret, fear of further future problems etc. What is interesting is that in chronic worriers, these themes appeared in the stream of worry regardless of the original worry topic. We even did a study where we asked worriers to imagine they were the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and that they were worried about this state of affairs. Sure enough, after a period of worrying the same self-depreciating themes emerged. So, such feelings associated with personal inadequacy are almost an inevitable consequence of the worrier’s worrying.

Many chronic worriers readily claim they could “Worry for their country!” They certainly could, but we wouldn’t necessarily end up with much in the way of hard-nosed answers to pressing questions. What this demonstrates is the complexity of the issues that underlie distressing and chronic worrying. For the chronic worrier, it is not just about solving problems, it is not just about a driving need to identify future problems, it involves a core issue with self-confidence, self-efficacy, and with self-esteem – all issues which need to be addressed in successful treatment for chronic worrying.

Many chronic worriers readily claim they could “Worry for their country!” They certainly could, but we wouldn’t necessarily end up with much in the way of hard-nosed answers to pressing questions

Graham C. L. Davey, Ph.D. is an expert in anxiety and a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, UK.

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