Why We Worry

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

My Worrying and My Bad Mood

Which comes first?

Mood and worry go hand in hand – well, at least bad mood and worry do! This has often raised the chicken and egg question “Which comes first, my bad mood or my worrying?” Worrying tends to occur in times of stress, anxiety, depression – even anger, and other negative moods that become associated with worry include guilt and shame.

The way that many people think about this relationship between worry and bad mood is to assume that worry causes stress, anxiety, guilt, shame etc. That is, your bad mood is a passive outcome of your worrying, and anxiety is a consequence of your irrational tendency to chronically worry. Not quite so. The relationship between worry and mood is complex, and your bad mood is as much a cause of your worrying as it is a consequence of it.

First, there is much evidence that the nature of your mood will affect not only what you think about but also how you think about it, and also how you will interpret what you think about. All this is grist to the worry mill. It is well known that negative moods (e.g. anxiety, depression, anger) cause what is known as a “mood-congruent memory” effect. That is, they facilitate access to mood congruent memories. So if you are in an anxious mood, you are more likely to retrieve negative, anxiety-relevant thoughts from memory than you are to retrieve positive thoughts. If such thoughts are about problems at work, recent arguments with a partner, or financial problems – all these are likely to trigger the worry process.

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Second, negative moods – and especially anxiety – are known to cause attentional biases towards potential threats in the environment. Such threats might be an anxiety-provoking news headline, a warning light flashing on the car dashboard, an angry face in a crowd. Anxiety will cause your attention to switch automatically to such potential threats – even before you’ve become consciously aware of the threat or that your attention has switched! Once again, a consequence of this is that focusing your attention on a potential threat provides more grist to the worry mill.

Thirdly – although we’re probably not aware of this – most of what we encounter in the world on a daily basis is neither clearly positive (something we will find positive and rewarding) nor clearly negative (something we will find threatening or challenging) – it is either neutral or it is ambiguous. For example, if we see someone obviously approaching us in the street, we don’t know whether this will turn out to be a good thing (they’re bringing back the mobile phone we’ve just dropped) or a bad thing (they’re going to berate us about bumping into them earlier). However, negative moods such as anxiety create an interpretation bias. They force us towards adopting the threatening interpretation rather than the benign one. As you can imagine, adopting threatening interpretations of the many ambiguous situations you are likely to encounter on a daily basis is likely to fuel your anxious mood and create more things to worry about.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, bad mood acts in a very curious way to facilitate worrying – when you’ve started worrying about something, it can prevent you from stopping! Worrying about something is a bit like trying to solve a problem, and just as we need to decide whether we’ve solved a problem, we also need to decide whether we’ve resolved a worry or not. But how do we decide that our worrying should be terminated because we’ve achieved what we set out to do? Well, our current mood is often a significant factor. We regularly implicitly use our current mood as information to determine whether we have met the goals of a task. That is, when we worry, we use our mood to decide whether we’ve “worried enough” about something. If we’re in a negative mood (anxious, angry, sad, tired, in pain), then that negative mood tells us we probably haven’t reached our goal yet – so we must keep worrying! If we are in a positive mood (happy, contented, excited), then that positive mood tells us we probably have reached our goal – so we can stop worrying. In this way, if we are in a negative mood when we worry, our negative mood will lengthen that worry bout and make it difficult for us to stop – that is why some people who regularly worry when in negative moods find it very difficult to control their worry.

So, I hope this post gives you some insight into how your bad moods can actually facilitate chronic worrying, and are not just an outcome of your worrying. What is clear, is that trying to manage your bad moods is important and will help you to manage and control your worrying. Some useful ways to manage your bad moods can be found here and here.

Follow me on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/GrahamCLDavey

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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