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The Myth of the "Born Worrier"

Are worriers truly born that way or does worry develop during your lifetime?

“I’m a born worrier. Fear is my best friend and worst enemy. I worry if I have nothing to worry about”. So says the Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy Osbourne who claims he is constantly searching for something to be concerned about and feels uneasy if life is running smoothly. 

Many of you may already have connected with that phrase “I’m a born worrier”—because it’s one we seem to hear a lot in casual conversation. Chronic, stressful worrying is undoubtedly a debilitating complaint, but many people who suffer chronic worry seem to be quite proud to declare that life is continually gripped by anxious apprehension?

This leads me on to talk about three things. Why are chronic worriers so keen to declare their worrying? Are worriers truly born as such—as many are very ready to claim? And, what makes people chronic worriers?

 First, that phrase “I’m a born worrier” is not so much a celebration of the merits of worrying, it’s more of a plea on the part of the worrier. What the worrier really means is “I have to worry, I can’t stop myself worrying, but it’s so important to me that I don’t want anyone trying to change me!” This reflects the fact that—although most chronic worriers find the act of worrying distressing and often uncontrollable—they feel the need to worry to prevent bad things happening. This ‘need to worry’ can be traced to a set of beliefs that worriers have developed about worry being an important thing to do. In some research we did a few years ago we found -somewhat paradoxically—that chronic worriers held very strong beliefs about worry having positive consequences (that worrying was useful) but also held very strong beliefs about worry having negative consequences. These positive beliefs were verbalized as things like “Worrying makes me reflect on life by asking questions I might not usually ask when happy”, “In order to get something done I have to worry about it”, and “Worrying allows me to work through the worst that can happen, so when it doesn’t happen things are better”. However, worriers also held negative beliefs about worrying, such as “Worry causes me stress” and “problems are magnified when I dwell on them”. As you can imagine, holding these contrasting sets of beliefs so strongly can make life demanding and stressful—being pulled in one direction by the need to worry, yet knowing that many of the consequences of worrying will have distressing and negative impacts.

These beliefs about the need to worry have been called “metacognitive beliefs” because they represent cognitions that are responsible for appraising, monitoring and controlling thinking. In effect, they determine what you will think about and why you should be doing it. Professor Adrian Wells at the University of Manchester has spent many years developing an influential metacognitive theory of chronic worry, and this has given rise to cognitive therapies for chronic worry that attempt to address these metacognitive beliefs about the need to worry. A description of this approach and its derived metacognitive therapy can be found here .

 This leads us back to asking where these beliefs about the need to worry come from. Well, the truth is we don’t really know yet. It returns us to the question of whether people can be ‘born worriers’. Most of the available evidence suggests that worriers are not born that way, but their need to worry develops during their lifetime. Studies have demonstrated only a modest contribution of genetics to psychiatric disorders relevant to worrying. The main disorder associated with worrying is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD for short), and uncontrollable, distressing worry is its cardinal diagnostic feature. Studies of the genetics of GAD suggest that there is an inherited component, but it is quite likely that the inherited component is nonspecific. That is, heredity marginally increases your risk of experiencing anxiety or developing an anxiety disorder, but your life experiences will determine how this increased risk for anxiety might be manifested.

 So developing beliefs about the need to worry is almost certainly something that people develop during their lifetime as an attempt to cope with both anxiety and with life challenges. In future blogs I’ll talk about where these beliefs about the need to worry might come from, what drives useful worrying into distressful, uncontrollable worrying, and provide you with some tips on coming to terms with your worrying. I’ll also talk about some different types of worrying, what makes your worrying seem uncontrollable and how your mood can influence your tendency to worry. Remember, worrying is not indelibly written into your genes, and you are not a ‘born worrier’, so worrying is an activity that you yourself can change.


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