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A New Explanation for Why Some People Worry So Much

Feeling happy for too long can make them feel vulnerable.

Key points

  • Worry and rumination are two common forms of repetitive negative thinking.
  • People repetitively think negative thoughts to avoid negative emotional contrasts and sustained positive mood.
  • Therapy challenges beliefs regarding the usefulness of worry and rumination, and may reduce negative thinking.
Source: KarstenBergmann/Pixabay

Published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, a 2023 study by Baik and Newman provides evidence for a recent psychological theory of why people engage in worry and rumination.

First, a couple of definitions.

Worry vs. Rumination

What is the difference between worry and rumination?

  • Worry refers to repetitive negative thoughts about potentially unpleasant future events.
  • Rumination refers to repetitive negative thoughts concerning present/past difficulties—their meaning, causes, consequences—or the gap between one’s desired and actual life.

So, an obvious difference between the two is that rumination is concerned with present/past events; worry, with future threats.

For example, a depressed person may ruminate on the causes or meaning of his or her lack of motivation—whether it could be caused by laziness, incompetence, past failures, etc., whereas he/she may worry about, say, a future meeting, exam, or doctor’s appointment.

Despite these differences, rumination and worry share much in common: They are both experienced as negative, repetitive, and uncontrollable.

Both are also associated with mental illness. As described in the DSM-5, worry is common in most forms of anxiety (especially generalized anxiety disorder), whereas rumination is more common in mood disorders (e.g., depression).

Research shows rumination is also associated with negative mood and loneliness.

Causes of Repetitive Negative Thinking

Why do we worry and ruminate? Why do we find them beneficial?

Because negative repetitive thinking tends to...

  • Decrease the chances of experiencing negative emotional contrasts.
  • Increase the chances of experiencing positive emotional contrasts.

To illustrate, being informed that you no longer have a job may be experienced as less unpleasant if you had been already feeling apprehensive and worried about the possibility of getting laid off. This occurs because there is less of a contrast between your feelings before and after receiving the news.

What if the news is positive (i.e. your job is safe)? This will result in a larger positive contrast. After all, if you were feeling nervous or distressed, the good news may result in a sense of relief and joy. However, if you were already happy, then you may not feel much better upon hearing that your job is safe.

But this is just a theory. The objective of the study that follows was to test these assumptions and examine how worry and rumination affect emotional contrasts.

Investigating Uses of Worry and Rumination in Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Sample: 63 participants (48 females); average age of 19 years old; 60 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic/Latino, 15 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian/Asian-American, and 2 percent multiracial.

Of the 63 participants, 37 had major depressive disorder (MDD) and/or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); the rest served as healthy controls.

Measures: Generalized Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire-IV; Beck’s Depression Inventory-II; the Diagnostic Interview for DSM-5 Anxiety, Mood, and Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders; and the Ecological momentary assessment (EMA) measure.


As expected, worry and rumination resulted in increased sadness and anxiety but decreased happiness. They were, additionally, associated with reduced negative emotional contrast.

In other words, greater worry and rumination prevented major emotional shifts. This was due to “lesser increased negative emotions and lesser decreased positive emotions.”

The data showed that compared to healthy controls, individuals with anxiety/depression experienced more negative events, perceived these events as more unpleasant (perhaps due to greater sensitivity), and engaged in more worry and rumination.

Importantly, the reason those with anxiety/depression did not like to sustain a positive emotional state was that being happy and relaxed made them feel vulnerable. To prevent sustained happiness, they engaged in worry and rumination.

This agrees with the authors’ theory—the idea that anxious people prefer positive emotions that are transient rather than chronic. So, although they like to experience happiness, joy, excitement, or satisfaction, they want these states to last only a short time.

Indeed, the more time spent in a state of happiness and relaxation, the more these individuals become acutely aware of how vulnerable they are to sudden mood shifts into negativity. Naturally, this increases their anxiety.


Rumination and worry decrease positive feelings and increase negative ones.

There are two reasons people use rumination and worry as coping strategies:

  1. To avoid negative emotional contrasts. For example, they would agree with the statement, “I was focusing on the negative because I want to be emotionally prepared in case something terrible happens.”
  2. To avoid sustained positive mood. For instance, they would agree with the statement, “I was focusing on the negative because allowing myself to feel happy leaves me vulnerable to feeling terrible in the end.”

So, how to engage in more adaptive and healthier emotion-regulation strategies for coping with anxiety and depression?

Psychotherapy may help. How?

  1. By challenging positive beliefs regarding the usefulness of repetitive negative thinking. To illustrate, one may be asked to keep track of daily worries to determine whether the outcomes he/she feared actually occurred. In fact, most things we worry about never happen. One study found that 9 out of 10 worries never came true.
  2. By reducing sensitivity to negative emotional contrasts. Behavioral therapy, in particular, exposure therapy to negative emotional shifts, may reduce fear of these shifts, and, consequently, eliminate the need for repetitive thoughts.
  3. By reducing sensitivity to prolonged positive mood. Here, exposure therapy targets not the emotional shifts themselves but the feelings of vulnerability to these shifts. Mindfulness may also be helpful in teaching patients techniques for being present and enjoying positive feelings—to savor happy, joyous, relaxing, and satisfying life experiences.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

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