When to Worry About Worrying

Turns out, we’re all hardwired to worry. And that’s not a bad thing.

August has a well-deserved reputation as a month when not much happens. Financial markets are slow. Congress is in recess. It’s so uneventful that one day, Aug. 10, is designated National Lazy Day. What better time to sit back and allow your mind to unwind?

Unless, of course, you happen to be a chronic worrier. Like Parkinson’s Law, worry seems to expand to fill the time available. And there’s never a shortage of things to fret over—from personal concerns about job security and health to larger issues like world peace and natural disasters.

Turns out, we’re all hardwired to worry. And that’s not a bad thing. “If we didn’t worry, we wouldn’t be vigilant to the danger and threats to ourselves and to our loved ones,” says Kathleen M. Rupertus, Psy.D., of The Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center in North Wilmington. “It’s a very motivating emotion that helps us to problem-solve. Without it, we would be walking into a lot more danger than we do now.”

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So if it’s OK—even beneficial—to worry, how do you know if you’ve crossed the line into an anxiety disorder? Rupertus views worry as more of a cognitive event, i.e., what happens if I don’t get the job or don’t pass the test? Individuals with anxiety disorders often blow their fears out of proportion, developing an irrational view of their severity.

“For most people with an anxiety disorder, they will realize very readily that what they’re most worried about probably won’t happen or if it does, it won’t be as bad as they thought,” says Rupertus. “But their emotions are going in a completely different direction.”

Additionally, individuals with anxiety disorder will exhibit physical manifestations of their fears, including a pounding heart, restlessness, upset stomach, muscle tension, headaches or insomnia. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Women are 60 percent more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men.

There are six main types of anxiety disorder: general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobias (including phobophobia, the fear of phobias), social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anxiety disorders can vary in intensity and it is not uncommon for someone to experience more than one type of disorder.

If you have anxiety disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy—particularly exposure therapy—can help. As its name suggests, exposure therapy exposes the patient to the feared object or situation without any danger to overcome their anxiety. “Our hearts and minds are capable of transforming our fears into strengths if we just stay in a situation long enough to allow that process to happen,” says Rupertus.

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Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, can also be an important part of treatment. “If people have been dealing with an anxiety disorder for long enough, there can be a secondary depression because their world starts getting smaller and smaller as they avoid the situations that make them anxious,” says Rupertus. “These medications also help people engage in the exposure therapy process.”

Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder and just happen to feel nervous, it is important to practice and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep?  Following a healthy diet? Exercising regularly? Do you have a support system? Do you practice stress managing and coping skills like deep breathing, meditation and yoga?

“A lot of times anxiety and stress are trying to tell us something is out of balance and we should listen rather than trying to get rid of it,” says Rupertus. “These are all good ways to manage stress.” 

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