In his 1915 book Worry and Nervousness, the American surgeon and psychiatrist William Samuel Sadler described worry as an “inability to relax the attention” once it had fastened itself onto a given fear. All people experience negative or troubling thoughts. But for those with worry-related mental “disturbances,” Sadler wrote, those negative thoughts are stickier and, eventually, they can become destabilizing.
Flash-forward 100 years, and mental health experts today echo many of Sadler’s sentiments — albeit using different language. “Worry is part of human nature,” says Robert Leahy, a New York-based clinical psychologist and associate editor of the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. If people didn’t worry, they wouldn’t be able to anticipate and prepare for life’s challenges. “For some people, though, worry gets to be overwhelming,” Leahy says. “People who worry a lot tend to become depressed; you can worry yourself into this negative outlook on life.”
One could argue that recent world and domestic events more than justify anxiety and a negative outlook. But a new study in the journal Behavior Therapy finds that many of the worries that occupy an anxious mind never come to fruition.
For the study, researchers at Penn State University asked 29 people with generalized anxiety disorder (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% 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.
Roughly 6.8 million Americans — about 3% of the population — have GAD, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. GAD is defined as finding it…