“Worry has consumed my life. I have worried about everything and everybody, and am always preparing for the possibility of things going wrong,” said Marla White, a 55-year-old publicist from Los Angeles.
She is not alone. A Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans said they felt worried a lot — about work, relationships, children, health and money, among other things.
Unrelenting worry accompanied by anxiety symptoms such as irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, fatigue and poor sleep, has been recognized as a condition called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Research about GAD, one of the newer anxiety diagnoses, has lagged behind other disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s now being recognized as a condition that many people suffer from — and for a long time.
“I often see people who have struggled with it for 10, 20, 30 years,” said Robert Leahy, founding director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York and author of “The Worry Cure.”
Studies show that between 5.7 and 11.9% of U.S. adults experience GAD at some point, yet less than half get treatment. Many people with GAD also have other anxiety disorders and depression, as well as significant work and interpersonal problems. GAD also represents a significant risk factor for cardiovascular problems.
Worrying doesn’t work
Chronic worriers often hold more positive beliefs about the usefulness of worry than the general population. They frequently view worry as motivating, helpful in preparing them for bad outcomes. They even see it as a positive personality trait.
Some believe that worry shows to others how much they care. Two frequent manifestations of GAD — perfectionism and workaholism — often are rewarded in our culture.
But research shows that worrying does not help people prepare, nor does it inoculate them from feeling bad when negative events come to pass.
Moreover, worriers are often not good problem-solvers. They frequently procrastinate, and that, as well as having perfectionistic tendencies, has been linked to worse performance.
Worriers tend to catastrophize, predicting that things will turn out worse than they actually do. A recent study found that 91% of worries held by people with GAD did not come true.
Psychologists Daniel Gilbert from Harvard and Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia have found that humans generally are bad at predicting how we will be affected by future events. Their research shows that people tend to overestimate the emotional effect of bad events and underestimate their ability to cope with those events.
Don’t fret, fix it
One way to minimize catastrophizing is by distinguishing between worrying and problem-solving. Worrying is fretting about a bad situation; problem-solving is trying to remedy it.
Some GAD sufferers have found success in mindfulness meditations.
In a small study of 40 worriers, University of Pittsburgh professor Lauren Hallion and colleagues found that the “focused attention” approach (in which the participants redirected attention from their worries to an external sound) decreased worrying the most. In comparison, accepting thoughts without trying to change them helped less.
If you’re worried that your worrying has gotten the better of you, consider seeking help from a cognitive behavior therapist. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (abct.org) is a good place to start.