Why We Worry

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

What Do We Worry About?

People worry a lot—but what do they worry about?

If you ask almost anyone whether they worry or not, they will almost certainly say “yes”. But what do they mean by worrying, and what do they worry about? Some people will say they ‘worry’ because it helps them solve problems and deal with issues on a daily basis. They consider that worrying helps them to “think constructively” about the problems they’re faced with, and there is good evidence that in most people worrying is associated with a problem-focused coping style (that is, a willingness to approach and deal with problems), and it’s also associated with an information seeking coping style.

But what do people worry about? In a study we conducted a number of years ago using a student population, it was clear that worries fell into what we call a number of different domains. These domains were relationships, work, financial, aimless future, and lack of confidence. Well, that probably covers the whole of a student’s experiences and lifestyle! In community populations, these domains still remain important sources of worry, but we need to add health as a further significant factor. Health is perhaps not such an important source of worry for students, but it certainly becomes the dominant worry domain as people get older. Studies have shown that worry content in the general population varies as a function of age, gender, marital status, and educational attainment, and that health worries become increasingly important as old age approaches. However, perhaps surprisingly, the prevalence of worries reduces with age – although worrying in old age is more highly associated with diagnosable common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Compared with a young 16-24 year-old group, worries about relationships/family, finances/housing and work were significantly lower in a 55-75 year-old age group, but worries about health were slightly higher.

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Around 75% of worries are about the present or the future – as you might expect from a process that people believe is supposed to help them deal with life problems. Most people worry at home (65%), and over half of those who worried at home did so in the bedroom! When asked when their principal worry times were, over 55% said between 9pm at night and 3am in the morning – the bewitching hours when your worries have the opportunity to haunt you while sleep eludes you!

But for many people, worrying is not a constructive thinking process, it is a mental health problem, and this is when worrying has become both a daily obsession and an uncontrollable process driven by the urges the individual feels to resolve all potential uncertainties in life (an impossible task, by the way!). In these circumstances, pathological worrying is often diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder – an anxiety problem that afflicts up to 10-12% of people in their lifetime. So what happens when normal worrying becomes pathological worrying, do people with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder worry about different things to people without that diagnosis?

Not really. People with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder worry about much the same domains of things as people without a diagnosis, with the exception that they worry considerably more about work, health, and minor, miscellaneous items. The difference between normal and pathological worrying is not the content, it’s the intensity and the perceived uncontrollability of the activity.

Having said all this, it is inevitable that people will worry about things that are important to them in their daily lives, and it is important to be aware of those factors that turn normal worrying into a mental health problem. These include a stressful lifestyle, curbing perfectionist tendencies, having a balanced view on the usefulness of your worrying, not to feel responsible for bad things happening, and – most important of all – don’t make mountains out of molehills. You can find some tips on managing these factors in a previous post.

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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