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What Is There to Worry About?

If we’re in an anxiety epidemic, then there’s plenty to worry about!

If we’re in an anxiety epidemic, then there’s plenty to worry about! The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence worries about constant scrutiny in the media and her private details being made public, actress and singer-songwriter Amanda Seyfried worries about her dog, and will picture him opening the apartment window and falling out, and singing star Adele gets so worried about going on stage that she’s physically sick before performances. What’s this all tell us? Well, we basically worry about anything and everything!

But the chief domains of worrying are ones that certainly won’t surprise us. Major worries tend to group around domains such as relationships, finances, work and health[1], and these reflect anxieties triggered by factors related to love and marital status, loneliness, poverty, unemployment, economic status, and disability, to name just a few. These are worries that are driven by traditional sources of anxiety, and as such would have been worries experienced by previous generations, and even our more ancient ancestors.

But what about modern day worries—the typical daily worries of Generations Y and Z? We can conveniently divide worries into two basic types, the first are worries about life events (such as that job interview, relationship difficulties, or our annual health check), and the second type is what are known as “daily hassles.” Daily hassles are the little things that can occur on an almost daily basis and cause us acute bouts of stress, and it’s with these daily hassles that we begin to see how the modern world has created entirely new worries for our Generations Y and Z. In 2015 the insurance provider Direct Line published a survey of 2025 adults in the UK after asking them about the stressors that worried them on a daily basis[2]. Here’s the top ten daily worries: (1) Not being able to sleep, (2) losing your keys, (3) being stuck in a traffic jam when already late, (4) losing an important paper or document, (5) having nowhere to park, (6) printer not working when you need to print something, (7) running out of battery on your mobile phone while out, (8) discovering you’re out of toilet paper while you’re on the loo, (9) dealing with computerized customer service, and (10) finding you’ve forgotten your bank card when paying for an item.

What’s striking about this list is that at least half of these daily hassles would’ve meant nothing in our parents’ era and they’re the product of technologies and life styles that have become central features of our lives only in the twenty-first century. As Professor Jonathan Freeman of Goldsmith’s College London puts it “we weren’t expecting to find that one of the major triggers (for stress) is the way in which people mentally process the spiraling effects of an everyday emergency … you may be sat in traffic on your way to the train station – and the worry about having to pay for a new ticket after missing the train can cause a feeling of hysteria!”[3] But these events aren’t just stressors that we simply react stressfully to only when encountered. Professor Freeman has coined the term ‘fearcasting’ to describe the way we now forward-plan for eventualities such as those in our list of top ten daily hassles. We’re not just worrying about future life event scenarios, our lives are so busy that our brain is continuously planning how to deal with a whole range of daily hassles - missed trains, parking problems, dead phones, lost keys, and traffic jams - many of which, of course, may simply never happen.

In addition to this list of modern daily hassles, there’s one particular personality characteristic that appears to foster worrying and is especially implicated in worrying about current affairs. This characteristic is known as ‘intolerance of uncertainty’, and it’s a feature that is likely to generate many modern day worries that are associated with uncertainty in the world. People who have this characteristic believe that any form of uncertainty is a bad thing and it gives rise to anxiety, stress, and worrying. Intolerance of uncertainty is on a continuum – we all experience some intolerance of uncertainty, but some more than others, and at the high ends of this continuum, intolerance of uncertainty is associated with a number of anxiety disorders and with the pathological worrying that’s experienced in Generalized Anxiety Disorder[4]. Dan Grupe at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared intolerance of uncertainty to an allergic reaction. “If you’re allergic to nuts, and you have a piece of birthday cake that has a drop of almonds in it, you have a violent physical reaction to it. A small amount of a substance that’s not harmful to most people provokes a violent reaction in you. Intolerance of uncertainty is like a psychological allergy”[5].

But here lies the problem – as my grandmother used to say, “there’s only one thing in life that’s certain, and that’s uncertainty!” So those individuals with an intolerance of uncertainty will spend much of their time fruitlessly worrying about how to acquire that unobtainable state of certainty. Given that we all have at least some intolerance of uncertainty, growing political uncertainty over recent years appears to have contributed to the modern list of worries. A survey conducted on 1700 people by the British Mental Health Foundation found that two in five people in the UK have felt anxiety in relation to Brexit, and almost half reported a ‘fair or great deal’ of anxiety in relation to the U.S. election in which Donald Trump was elected president – both represent on-going international uncertainties giving rise to what some psychologists have labelled “Brexit anxiety” and “Trump anxiety”![6] – I expect, though, that these new anxieties will be relatively fleeting, and you certainly shouldn’t expect to see them in future editions of psychiatric diagnostic manuals!

If modern life’s so busy, then when do we find time to do all this worrying? As part of our initial research into worrying in the 1990s we published a study on the phenomenology of worrying – it was basically a description of the ways in which people experienced their worries[7], and the bedroom has a lot to answer for! Two out of 3 people said they mainly worried at home, and 57 percent of those said their worrying took place in the bedroom when they were lying in bed. The most common worry times during the day were between 9 pm at night and 3am in the morning. More recent research by home insurance provider Privilege adds some more detail to this evolving picture of a nation of nighttime worriers[8]. Their 2016 survey of 2005 adults in the UK found that we spend on average 81 minutes per night worrying – this adds up to a staggering seven whole days of sleep lost through nighttime worrying every year. They found that the prime time for nighttime worrying was 2-3 am, with an estimated 12.4 million Britons awake at this time. Two in every 5 of these nighttime worriers were worrying about their finances, and one in 3 worried about their health. So, what’s the impact of all this sleep lost through nocturnal worrying? Just look back to what was number 1 in our list of top ten daily hassles – yes, that’s right, not being able to sleep! It seems the modern day human being spends the daytime worrying about how they’re going to deal with the sleep they’ve lost at night because of their nocturnal worrying! How did we get ourselves into such a perfect vicious cycle?

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[1] Craske M, Rapee R, Jackel L & Barlow D (1989) Qualitative dimensions of worry in DSM III-R generalized anxiety disorder subjects and nonanxious controls. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 27, 397-402.



[4] Boswell JF, Thompson-Hollands J, Farchione TJ & Barlow DH (2013) Intolerance of uncertainty: A common factor in the treatment of emotional disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, doi: 10.1002/jclp.21965



[7] Tallis F, Davey GCL & Capuzzo N (1994) The phenomenology of non-pathological worry: A preliminary investigation. In G Davey & F Tallis (Eds) Worrying: Perspectives on theory, assessment and treatment. Wiley.