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The Secret Reason Why You Can’t Stop Worrying

New research is beginning to reveal why some of us can't stop.

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

We all know what it’s like to worry. Scary thoughts creep into our mind and we just can’t seem to shake them off. What if I lose my job? What if my marriage falls apart? What if I can’t pay off my college debt?

One thing that makes these thoughts so difficult to turn off is that we never know for sure what our future holds. This makes the “what if” questions impossible to firmly resolve.

Most people occasionally get stuck mulling over one of these thoughts for a while, often imagining the worst possible outcome. Research shows that our most common worries include our relationships with others, work or school performance, finances, health, and other responsibilities.

Although everyone worries from time to time, excessive and uncontrollable worrying is the main symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a disabling mental illness that affects more than 5 percent of the population—with a disproportionate number being women. People with GAD worry excessively over many different issues, which can produce feelings of restlessness, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, and sleep problems.

Unfortunately, research shows that chronic and excessive worry can have widespread repercussions, such as relationship problems, impaired work and school performance, unemployment, and even long-term medical consequences. (Sound familiar? These are the very topics we’re most worried about!)

To recap, worrying makes us feel bad, and if done to excess it may inadvertently lead to the very outcomes we’re trying our hardest to avoid. But despite all of this, many of us find it really challenging to let go of our worries. Even trained therapists can struggle to help their anxious clients cut down on worrying. Why could this be?

Over the years, a lot of researchers have tried to answer this perplexing question. What they’ve found might surprise you: It seems that, ironically, people often harbor positive beliefs about worrying.

For instance, many of us believe that worrying about a problem is similar to problem-solving. Unfortunately, though it may feel like we’re doing something productive, worrying rarely fixes our problems. Though it does focus our attention on these issues, we tend to slide into thinking repetitively over all the ways that things can go wrong, and we spend less time identifying solutions.

In fact, psychologists know that we’re better at problem-solving when we shift out of worrisome thinking and into more objective, strategic thinking—such as breaking the problem down into smaller parts or focusing on our goals. (For example, instead of just worrying about climate change, you could better use that energy to write your congressperson, ride your bike to work, educate others, etc.). Keep in mind, true problem-solving will usually make you feel better about an issue—not worse.

Another and perhaps even more insidious reason why some of us can’t stop worrying is that, ironically, it feels like we’re protecting ourselves on an emotional level. This sounds counterintuitive—why would something so painful and tortuous feel protective? But research is beginning to support this idea.

Some years ago, Michelle and I ran studies in our lab where we asked people to either worry or relax before watching an upsetting video (such as a movie scene where an incredibly believable child actor sobs over his dying father—ouch!). We found that people who worried beforehand didn’t experience much emotional change in response to the video, whereas people who had been relaxing experienced a big spike in their negative emotions.

Why did this happen?

Because people who had worried first were already in a negative emotional state—so they just kept feeling bad. What’s more, the people who were naturally high worriers said they actually preferred it this way. But why would someone prefer to feel bad before a negative experience?

Perhaps it’s because it helps us feel more emotionally prepared for that outcome. Let’s say you just took a difficult exam, and now you’re worrying about it. (What if I failed? What if that brings down my final grade and I fail the class?) By doing this—that is, working yourself up emotionally—you may feel like you’re bracing for the worst-case scenario. And if you really did fail, you’ll probably experience less of an emotional impact when you get your grade—specifically, less change in your emotional state. We call this emotional contrast avoidance, because you avoid the stark contrast between feeling happy and then suddenly feeling bad.

Sounds great, right? But keep in mind—it’s not as though worrying beforehand made you feel better about the bad outcome. It’s just that because you were already feeling bad, the shift in emotions wasn’t as dramatic. (There may even be some satisfaction in thinking, I was right.)

And positive beliefs about worry tend to hold even if things turn out okay. For example, let’s say your grade comes in and it’s not as bad as you thought. Instead of recognizing how much time you just wasted by worrying, you might feel like you’ve dodged a bullet. This can also reinforce worrying because the sense of relief feels so good.

What’s so seductive about this pattern is that those of us who worry excessively also tend to be emotionally sensitive people. So in a way, it makes sense that we would rather just “play it safe” and keep our emotional guard up indefinitely. If we never get our hopes up, we can never be disappointed, right? After all, bad things could happen at any time.

But at what cost?

If we give ourselves over to unbridled worry, we are essentially feeling miserable on purpose just to brace for an event that may never happen. What’s worse, we may end up unintentionally turning our positive feelings into red flags. This is because being happy or optimistic makes us feel emotionally vulnerable, like we’ve let our guard down.

In other words, happiness begins to feel unsafe. This also makes it difficult to stop worrying, even if you want to.

So what can you do instead?

For one, you can learn to trust in your ability to cope with negative events, if and when they happen. The good news is that research shows that most of the things we worry about will never come to pass. But if something bad does happen, remember that you’ll be better equipped to deal with it if you’re coming from a place of emotional well-being, rather than a state of anxiety and pessimism. You’ll also probably be more open-minded about trying out solutions. (For example, joining a study group or emailing your professor to ask about extra credit opportunities.) Researchers have found that maintaining a more positive mindset actually increases your willingness to implement these kinds of solutions and strategies.

What if your worry is harder to shake off? Consider trying some more active coping skills, like mindfulness, guided meditation, or relaxation training. These days you can find dozens of good apps right on your phone. Even just exercise can be hugely rewarding.

But if worry has been a more serious or chronic problem for you, don’t be afraid to reach out for help, such as to a mental health professional for consultation or counseling. And don’t be too hard on yourself—longstanding and well-rehearsed thought patterns can be very difficult to change on your own. But you CAN change.

Ultimately, the goal is to let go of a chronic negative mindset, and learn how to cultivate and savor more positive emotional states. This may mean facing your fears: allowing yourself to relax and let your guard down, and to let yourself feel emotionally vulnerable. (Remember, it sometimes takes courage to be happy.)

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Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2014). Rethinking the role of worry in Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Evidence supporting a model of emotional contrast avoidance. Behavior Therapy, 45(3), 283-299. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2013.12.011

Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2017). Development and validation of two measures of emotional contrast avoidance: The contrast avoidance questionnaires. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 49, 114-127.

Newman, M. G., & Llera, S. J. (2011). A novel theory of experiential avoidance in generalized anxiety disorder: A review and synthesis of research supporting a Contrast Avoidance Model of worry. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 371–382.

Newman, M. G., Llera, S. J., Erickson, T. M., Przeworski, A., & Castonguay, L. G. (2013). Worry and generalized anxiety disorder: A review and theoretical synthesis of research on nature, etiology, and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9, 275–297.

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