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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 difficult to control worrying “more days than not” for at least six months, and also experiencing symptoms like nervousness, an increased heart rate, problems sleeping, or trouble concentrating.
“People with anxiety disorders understand that they have a propensity to worry, but they tend to focus on the fact that bad things can happen,” says Michelle Newman, co-author of the study and director of Penn State’s Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research. Also, people with GAD tend to encounter the same worries over and over again. “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,” Newman says.
Her study’s findings lend support to two theories long held by psychotherapists: first, that among people who experience persistent worrying, many of those worries are unlikely to occur, and second, that presenting worriers with this sort of evidence can help lower their anxiety.
“You keep telling yourself something bad will happen and predicting the worst outcome, but repeatedly, these things you’re predicting aren’t happening.”
The Penn State study only included concerns 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 total burden 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.”
Even for people who don’t have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, Newman’s experiment could be helpful. “Write down your concerns or negative predictions and test them out — see how often they’re accurate,” Leahy suggests.
Another anxiety-reducing technique that Leahy describes in his book, The Worry Cure, is to set aside a block of time each day for worrying. It may sound odd, he says, but a lot of people find it easier to take their mind off a concern if they’ve granted themselves a specific time and place to pick it back up. “So at 3 o’clock every day, you’ll sit down and think about all your worries,” he says. Not only can this tactic help people escape from round-the-clock anxiety, but come 3 o’clock, many realize that the thing they’d worried about earlier in the day no longer concerns them.
There’s no one-size-fits-all cure for anxiety or worrying, Leahy says. Problem-worrying often takes years to build up, and so it’s unlikely to dissipate in a day or a week. But with a mix of techniques and, in some cases, a therapist’s attention, it can be shrunk down to size.
“No matter how effective you are at reducing worries, you’re not going to eliminate them,” he adds. Unpleasant thoughts and negative emotions are part of the human condition. Embracing this truth can be another helpful way of coping, he says.