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Do you ever have times when you think, I can’t stop worrying? About a particular situation, person or event?

I’m sure you have.

I know I have.

At various times I can’t stop worrying about paying the rent, my savings (or lack of), my to-do-list, my parenting skills, my children, my nutrition… Often I can’t stop worrying about whether I said or did the wrong thing, what people think of me… I’m sure I’m missing some worries in this list but you get the picture.

Some worries are “useful worries”

It’s normal to worry about things like health, money, or relationships. Some research shows that there are even advantages to worrying. For example a 2017 study found that worries can motivate people to protect themselves and prevent problems. 

Of course, that is only if the worrying is at a healthy level. For example, women who are “moderate” worriers, (rather than women who have low or high levels of worry) are more likely to get themselves screened for cancer. In this case, worry motivates you to take the necessary tests to ensure you identify possible problems early.

Our brains evolved to solve short-term, acute problems.

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Why do we worry?

For our homo sapiens ancestors, being able to worry and predict the worst possible outcome in a situation meant a far greater chance of survival. Our brains evolved to solve short-term, acute problems.

The reality is that our brains haven’t changed much in the last 200,000 years. The neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for conscious thought, language and sensory perception (among other functions), is about the same size in us modern humans as it was in our homo sapiens ancestors.

Imagine Thor out on the savannah. He looks at the sky and can’t stop worrying about a storm coming in. Because of this worry, he  made a  mental note of a cave along the way. When the storm began, he avoided being hit by lightning because he made for the cave and increased his chance of survival. 

In terms of evolution, those that worried were more lively to survive and reproduce.

So you could say that it is part of human nature and we have evolved to worry.

Despite the physical structure of our brains not having changed much in the last 200,000 years,  our world has changed dramatically. 

Our worries are chronic

The world we live in is dramatically different and the worries we have are less immediate. You could even call them chronic. 

Our worries are no longer immediate and acute worries such as shelter, food, the weather and fleeing from predators. Rather, now we can’t stop worrying about financial stress, relationship problems, our boss, our work, our children, people and situations. And we carry these underlying worries with us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There comes a point where we can’t stop worrying and it becomes excessive. “This is what breaks my heart about worry,” says Dr Lucas LaFreniere a clinical psychology researcher. “It makes you miserable in the present moment to try and prevent misery in the future.” 

He goes on to say, “For chronic worriers, this process leads them to be continually distressed all their lives in order to avoid later events that never happen. Worry sucks the joy out of the ‘here and now’ to prevent an unrealistic ‘then and there.’”

questions to ask yourself

Most of what we worry about never happens

Hope comes in the form of a new study which finds that many of the things that people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can’t stop worrying about, do not even come true.

For the study, researchers at Penn State University asked people with GAD to write down everything they worried about for one month. The study participants also recorded the outcomes of their worries.

The researchers found that 91.4% of people’s worries did not come true. For several of the people in the study, exactly none of the things they worried about actually happened.

Even on those rare occasions when a person’s worry translated to reality, the outcome was often better than the person had feared, the study found.

When presented with this evidence that their worries were largely unfounded, many of the people in the study experienced improvements in their anxiety symptoms.

The researchers found that 91.4% of people’s worries did not come true. For several of the people in the study, exactly none of the things they worried about actually happened.

can't stop worrying

Michelle Newman, co-author of the study and director of Penn State’s Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research, says “By proving to them that their feared outcome didn’t happen as often as they thought — and that even when it did, the outcome was better than they’d expected — we could help them see that worrying isn’t helpful,” 

The findings

The findings from this study are clear to the worriers among us:

Most of what we can’t stop worrying about never happens.

If it does happen, it’s not as bad as we thought it would be. 

If we know this information – that most of our worries don’t come true – it helps to lessen anxiety symptoms.

So now you know.

Now one thing to bear in mind with this study was that it only included worries that could be proved or disproved within 30 days — stuff like “I’m worried I’m going to fail my test,” but not “I’m worried I’ll never meet the right person.”

Still, proving to people that their short-term fears are largely invalid can help lower their overall feelings of anxiety. 

“You can say to a person, ‘Look at the evidence,’” Newman explains. “You keep telling yourself something bad will happen and predicting the worst outcome, but repeatedly, these things you’re predicting aren’t happening.”

If you still can’t stop worrying, try these tools

Of course it’s all very well to say “stop worrying” but you’ve likely spent years training your brain to worry and it will take a little time and effort to get it to stop worrying.

Here are some tools you can try:

  1. Do the experiment above: write down all the things you can’t stop worrying about that can be either proved or disproved within the next 30 days. And see how often they come true.
  2. Designated worry time. Some experts suggest having a particular time in the day when you actively worry. Knowing that you have a block of time to worry means that you can relieve yourself of worrying at other times of the day. You may even find that when it comes around to worry time your worries have resolved themselves.
  3. Know that is is normal to have some worries and that they are unlikely to completely go away. Accepting this often means you can move on from the worry.
  4. Instead of focussing only on what could go wrong, give some thought to what could go right in each situation.
  5. Ask yourself what you are missing out on by choosing worry or fear. Also try these other questions to ask yourself.

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