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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
 
 
Don't Worry About It!
Anxiety and Its Impact
on Emotional Well-Being
Sandra Llera, PhD, Towson University (MD)
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Chances are, you know what it feels like to worry.
  • “What if I don’t pass this exam?”
  • “What if that comment I made to my friend hurt her feelings?”
  • “What if I never find true love?”
These kinds of thoughts circle through our heads and can be difficult to ignore. Occasionally, our brain gets stuck on one of these threatening questions, mulling it over and over, and often imagining the worst possible outcome. The most commonly reported worry topics include interpersonal relationships, work/school performance, health, and other responsibilities.

The problem with worrying, besides making us feel terrible, is that it doesn’t help us to fix any of these issues. We may think we’re doing something productive, like problem-solving, but that’s not really what’s happening. Worrying is actually more like “spinning your wheels” over issues that make you anxious. Although worrying focuses our attention on potential problems, we rarely reach a solution this way, at least not until we shift out of worrisome thinking and into more effective problem-solving strategies. For example, “I’ll just talk to my friend tomorrow and ask her if I hurt her feelings.” True problem-solving usually makes us feel better about an issue, whereas worrying almost always makes us feel worse.
Although we all worry from time to time, excessive and uncontrollable worrying is the main symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a disabling mental illness that affects more than 5% of the population, with twice as many women as men receiving the diagnosis. Individuals with GAD experience problematic worry over a number of different issues in their lives, which can produce feelings of restlessness, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, and sleep problems. Research shows that the excessive worry seen in GAD can have widespread and lasting repercussions, such as impaired work and school performance, relationship problems, unemployment, and even long-term medical consequences.
Despite the fact that worrying makes us feel bad, fails to provide effective solutions, and can even seriously damage our health and well-being, therapists actually find it quite difficult to help their clients cut down on worrying. For all of its drawbacks, some of us still have a really hard time letting go of this way of thinking. Why could this be?
Over the years, a lot of researchers have tried to answer that question. One reason they’ve found is that, ironically, people tend to have positive beliefs about worrying. Besides the belief that worry helps us find solutions (which it usually doesn’t), many people also report that it helps them feel more prepared for possible negative events in their lives. That is, when we worry, we feel like we’re bracing ourselves just in case something terrible happens. That positive belief tends to hold even if things turn out okay. For example, let’s say you worried all week about failing your exam, but when your grade comes in, you see that you passed. In these events, instead of recognizing how much time you just wasted on worry, you may feel like you’ve dodged a bullet. This can reinforce your worrying because the sense of relief feels so good.
But what happens if our worries do come true—if that worst-case scenario we’ve been bracing for really does happen?
  • We fail the test.
  • Our friend really is mad at us.
  • Our romantic partner calls it off.
Research on this sequence tends to support our beliefs about worry, in that people do experience less of an emotional impact (that is, less change in their emotional state) if they were worrying before a negative event occurred. As you might expect, those who were relaxing before a negative event reported experiencing a strong increase in their negative emotions. But both groups of people ultimately reported the same levels of negative emotion after the event. These findings suggest that worrying beforehand does not makes us feel better about a bad outcome. Instead, they suggest that because we were already feeling bad when it happened, the shift in emotions wasn’t as dramatic. There may even be a small sense of satisfaction in thinking, I was right.
What’s so seductive about this pattern is that those of us who worry excessively also tend to be emotionally sensitive people. We can feel easily overwhelmed by negative emotions. We may even find our emotions to be scary and feel out of control. And research shows that people with GAD can experience stronger negative reactions to stressful, scary events than our nonanxious counterparts. Furthermore, for the chronic worriers among us, it feels a whole lot easier to cope with these negative emotions, and not as overwhelming, if we were already braced for them. So in a way, it makes sense that some of us would rather play it safe by keeping our emotional guard up indefinitely. After all, you never know when something bad might happen.
But at What Cost?
If we give in to unbridled worrying, we are in a sense making ourselves feel miserable on purpose, just to lessen the emotional impact of a negative event that may never happen. And we’re choosing to feel this sense of anxiety and pessimism all the time. What’s even worse, we may end up unintentionally turning our positive feelings into anxiety triggers. That is, according to this mindset, letting yourself feel happy or optimistic makes you feel emotionally vulnerable, as if you’ve let your guard down.
In other words, happiness begins to feel unsafe. This makes it hard to simply relax and enjoy a good mood; it also makes it difficult to stop worrying, even if you want to. In exchange for the temporary sense of emotional security, chronic worrying takes a toll—on our relationships with others, our productivity, and even our physical health (essentially, the very topics we’re most worried about!).
What Can We Do Instead?
For one, we can learn to trust in our ability to cope with the negative event if and when it occurs. The good news is research shows that the majority of things people worry about never actually happen. But if it does, we’re most likely going to be better equipped to deal with it if we’re coming from a state of emotional well-being rather than a state of rigid negativity. A more flexible emotional stance may even allow us to be more open-minded about finding solutions. For example, if you failed an exam, take a deep breath, and remember that there may still be time to tailor your approach to studying for the next one. Talk with your professor, and try to offset the grade by taking extra credit opportunities. Psychologists also know that keeping a more positive mindset actually increases our willingness to implement these self-improvement strategies.
What if your worry is more difficult to shake off? Consider trying some more active coping skills such as mindfulness training, guided meditation, and relaxation exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. But if anxiety and worry have been a more serious or long-standing problem, you may consider seeking out a mental health professional for consultation or counseling, such as through your university’s counseling center.
The ultimate goal is to let go of the chronic negative mindset, and to invest in learning how to cultivate more positive emotional states. This may mean facing your fears: allowing yourself to relax and let your guard down, and to feel emotionally vulnerable. It also means allowing your mind to be focused on the present and not always scanning the future for possible threats. Because in reality, the present is all you will ever have. Why not make it happier?
Related Reading
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Borkovec, T. D., Hazlett-Stevens, H., & Diaz, M. L. (1999). The role of positive beliefs about worry in generalized anxiety disorder and its treatment. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 6, 126–138. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1099-0879(199905)6:2<126::aid-cpp193>3.0.co;2-m
Borkovec, T. D., & Roemer, L. (1995). Perceived functions of worry among generalized anxiety disorder subjects: Distraction from more emotionally distressing topics? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 26, 25–30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0005-7916(94)00064-s
Crouch, T. A., Lewis, J. A., Erickson, T. M., & Newman, M. G. (in press). Prospective investigation of the contrast avoidance model of generalized anxiety and worry. Behavior Therapy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2016.10.001
Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2010). Effects of worry on physiological and subjective reactivity to emotional stimuli in generalized anxiety disorder and nonanxious control participants. Emotion, 10, 640–650. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0019351
Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2014). Rethinking the role of worry in generalized anxiety disorder: Evidence supporting a model of Emotional Contrast Avoidance. Behavior Therapy, 45, 283–299. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2013.12.011
Kessler, R. C., & Wang, P. S. (2008). The descriptive epidemiology of commonly occurring mental disorders in the United States. Annual Reviews of Public Health, 29, 115–29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.29.020907.090847
Newman, M. G., & Llera, S. J. (2011). A novel theory of experiential avoidance in generalized anxiety disorder: A review and synthesis of research supporting a Contrast Avoidance Model of worry. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 371–382. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.01.008
Newman, M. G., Llera, S. J., Erickson, T. M., Przeworski, A., & Castonguay, L. G. (2013). Worry and generalized anxiety disorder: A review and theoretical synthesis of research on nature, etiology, and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9, 275–297. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185544
Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives Psychological Science, 3, 400–424. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x

Sandra Llera, PhD, is an assistant professor of Psychology at Towson University, licensed clinical psychologist, and recent recipient of the Psi Chi distinguished undergraduate faculty award. She has numerous publications on the topics of anxiety disorders, worry, emotion regulation, and psychophysiology. Her current research emphasizes further development and exploration of an emotional contrast avoidance model as a new way to understand worry and emotion dysregulation, both in generalized anxiety disorder and transdiagnostically. She is currently on the editorial board of Behavior Therapy.

 

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Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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