By Nelson Moses Vinod
Worry consists of negative thoughts, images, and emotions related to future events repeating itself in an uncontrollable fashion. This results in mental, emotional and physical distress as the person struggles to solve a potential problem or anticipated threat. Most of the time the worrier overestimates the risk or challenge, and underestimates his or her own capability, to handle the future situation that may or may not occur.
Thoughts of dread that inhabit a worrier’s mind include: “Maybe I won’t pass the exam?,” “Will I get cancer?,” “My partner might leave me,” “Am I a loser,” “Is my boss planning to fire me?,” “Do I have enough money for retirement?,” “Are my children doing drugs?,” “Am I too fat or am I too thin?,” “Will I ever find a partner?,” “Is my wife cheating on me?,” “Do my colleagues secretly hate me?.”
For all its negative associations, worry had a big role to play in helping our ancestors survive and adapt themselves to new situations. Fear produced the necessary fight or flee response, needed to swing into action, and avoid danger.
We don’t face the same grave dangers that our ancestors faced on a daily basis. A tiger is not going to leap out from behind a car and make us its breakfast or our neighbor won’t creep into our bedroom in the middle of the night and scalp us. Yet, we worry. “An optimal amount of healthy and positive stress may help us perform better,” says Dr. Alok Kulkarni, Consultant Psychiatrist at Seraniti.
“Worrying about future events that have not yet occured acts as an alarm system and helps us prepare for them. But while the stress caused by worry floods our neural pathways with adrenaline and noradrenaline preparing us for critical situations, it can sometimes affect us negatively, if worry becomes a constant.”
This can result in a series of events that can lead to mild to severe mental health issues.
When to worry about worry?
This happens when instead of fighting or fleeing, we freeze instead, our minds marinating in rumination. “The clear signs of chronic or excessive worry is being unable to complete the basic tasks of day-to-day living such as sleeping, eating, working and self care without excessive effort. There’s also excessive preoccupation with worry by spending more time stressing about a wide variety of situations and possible outcomes despite their actual happening being unlikely,” says Parth Kalia, Integrative Therapist, Seraniti.
When worrying becomes excessive it results in irrational fears, high stress and anxiety. Rather than being a fillip to action, it slows us down, paralysing life. “When it becomes our need that things be perfect and in control, when we have low tolerance for distress, when we have a very negative view of the world and always anticipate things to go wrong and that’s unacceptable,” says Debasmita Sinha, Associate Integrative Therapist at Seraniti.
While worrying is mostly manifested in our minds, anxiety’s force can be felt in both the body and the mind, and can be highly stressful. But just like a certain amount of worrying is normal and even helpful, it is the same with anxiety, we all feel it, and it can help us deal better with situations, and maybe even savor more of life.
But when anxiety follows you around on most days and becomes a loyal companion over several months, it maybe signs of a anxiety disorder, the most common ones being generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and specific phobias (fear of flying, fear of animals and so on). Anxiety disorders affect us mentally, physically and emotionally. Think cold feet, crying, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, palpitations, irritable bowels, heartburn, dry scalp, blurry vision, difficulty in focusing and dizziness. In short, it is derailing, affecting our daily lives, curbing our ability to have relationships, impress our bosses, or even go out to meet a friend.
What does excessive worry and anxiety look like?
S.K a 29 year old from Kolkata calls himself a 100% serial worrier and has been diagnosed with GAD. The consequence of his consistent worrying is that he deals with severe anxiety. He talks about how thoughts turn to worrying and then to anxiety. “There’s a torrent of uncontrollable thoughts. Oh my God! I didn’t do a very good job at work today, clearly I’m a liability. Oh I’m so replaceable. I’ll be fired soon. I’ll be without a job. How will I find a new job? Why would anyone employ me? How long can I sustain myself on my current savings?,” says S.K.
When he’s in the midst of an anxiety attack, it overwhelms his mind and he can’t think straight. “I can’t focus. It drains me. The mental effects last a whole day if not more. My hands shake. It gives me an upset stomach. It also completely exhausts me physically,” says S.K.
GAD has affected S.K’s ability to form relationships. He becomes overly talkative when he’s anxious, which he thinks is partly to distract himself, and partly to evoke a comforting response from the other person. He thinks that this has only driven people away from him.
“I’m almost 28 and I’ve never been in a relationship. I haven’t even tried to ask a girl out because my brain tells me, “Why would she want to go out with you?,”” says S.K. His anxiety slows down the pace of his work, the quality suffers, and due to poor concentration, he forgets to do things, some of which are important.
What’s even more troubling is that in recent years excessive worrying has been linked not only to anxiety disorders but as a gateway to a wide swathe of other mental illnesses, including drug and alcohol dependence, eating disorders and paranoid thinking. Worrying may start off as what makes us human, then it becomes excessive and soon, if left untreated, it spreads its tentacles leaves us tottering; mind, body and soul.
How not to worry:
The simplest way to deal with worry and anxiety is stop worrying. Since worrying is essentially thinking about a future event and expecting the outcome to be negative, the best way to be dealing with worry is to bring the mind back to the present, and this can be done through mindfulness. In a study titled: “Life in the Future versus Life in the Present” Thomas D Borkovec from Pennsylvania State University advises that one has to bring back one’s attention to the present. While he talks specifically about GAD it can be applied to excessive worrying.
Deepa Pai, Associate Integrative Therapist, Seraniti agrees about being mindful and stresses on being organized and using the power of journaling. “Practice mindfulness, organize your activities, Keep a journal of thoughts and feelings too,” says Deepa.
Sometimes medication and talk therapy might be essential for treatment and recovery. S.K has been able to leverage medication and therapy to address his anxiety.
“I’ve been on medication for seven years and continue to take them. I’m also in therapy, which has given me some amazing insights and skills which make certainly make it easier to cope than say 2 years back,” says he.
Dr. Kulkarni thinks that nobody’s life can be completely worry free, but it is definitely possible to have a productive life, free from stress if one learns to adapt to the stressors effectively.
Dr. Kulkarni’s advice: “Focus on the positives. Consciously remind yourself to stay positive at all times and to gently tell oneself that worrying will not be productive and that one needs to do something productive about it. Be solution-centric and not problem-focused. Staying physically active and building close relationships and having an active social life are of paramount importance in leading a stress-free and worry-free life.”
Parth talks about being proactive by looking after oneself before the stress hits and not wait for the buildup of stressors. A network of caring friends and family for support also helps, says he.
“Understand that we have control only over the things is our circle of influence, and focus on the efforts that can be put in to avert adversity. Develop tolerance for unwanted outcomes.
Life without excess worrying will mean deepened and expanded experience of the here and now, and also live longer,” says Debasmita.
Yoga, deep breathing, art therapy, listening to music, spending time outdoors, cognitive behavioral therapy and avoiding stressful situations will also help.
About the author
Nelson Vinod Moses is a Bangalore-based, award-winning mental health journalist, and Founder of Suicide Prevention India Foundation. His writing has been featured in Fortune, Quartz, The Times of India, HuffingtonPost, and many other publications. He is on a quest to bring mental health conversations out in the open, improving mental health literacy, and talking about the importance of mental health self-care.