Everything you need to know about chronic worry in 5 minutes or less
🎯 What Is Chronic Worry?
Chronic worry is the mental habit of thinking negative, unhelpful, and anxiety-producing thoughts about the future. Because chronic worry is the primary cause of chronic anxiety, learning to break the habit is essential for overcoming long-term anxiety of any kind.
👀 Examples of Chronic Worry
- Imagining other people thinking badly of you any time you make a mistake or error
- Constantly worrying about the health and safety of you or someone you love
- Regularly worrying about your decisions and decision-making abilities, and as a result, struggling to make even simple decisions
- Frequently worrying about your sleep and the consequences of not sleeping well
😬 Problems Associated with Chronic Worry
- Stress and anxiety. Worry causes anxiety. So if you’re habitually worrying, you will feel habitually anxious and stressed.
- Confidence and self-esteem issues. It’s difficult to feel confident if you’re constantly worrying, especially about yourself and your abilities or self-worth.
- Procrastination. Because it’s similar in form to problem-solving, it’s easy to end up using worry as a form of avoidance from doing the actual work.
- Relationship struggles. Habitually worrying about yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and frequently results in conflict, trust issues, decreased intimacy, and resentment.
- Insomnia and sleep trouble. Most of insomnia is caused by a habit of worrying in or around bed, including worrying about sleep and the consequences of not sleeping well. When you’re worrying, your mind is in a state of arousal which directly inhibits sleep.
🌀 Origins and Causes of Chronic Worry
- Early modeling. When a parent or primary caregiver worries a lot, it’s common for a child to imitate and learn that behavior themselves.
- Trauma reaction. Often worry becomes a coping mechanism for traumatic experiences or their after effects. And even if the traumatic experience is resolved, the habit of worry may remain.
- Personality. Certain personality styles like high trait neuroticism often make people more vulnerable to chronic worry.
- Emotional avoidance. Often, worrying is a way to avoid painful emotions, especially fear of uncertainty and lack of control. While worry leads to more anxiety long-term, it can briefly distract you from anxiety in the short-term by giving you something to think about and do that feels productive. In other words, worry gives the illusion of control and certainty, which makes it addicting.
- Poor attentional control. The ability to control your attention—what you choose to focus on or not—is a mental muscle. When it’s weak and underdeveloped, it’s easy to get caught up in your worries and have a hard time letting go of them, which only reinforces them and increases the tendency to get lost in them.
- Reassurance-seeking. Reassurance-seeking is a coping mechanism where you respond to feeling anxious and worrying by immediately looking to someone else to tell you things will be okay. Not only does this outsourcing of emotional labor tend to harm relationships in the long-run, but—like all coping mechanisms—tends to provide short-term relief at the expense of longer-term pain.
- Compound Worry. When you worry about being worried or anxious, you not only become more anxious and worried in the moment, but in the long-run you train your brain to interpret worry and anxiety as dangerous, which leads to far more long-term stress and anxiety.
💡 Key Insights About Chronic Worry
- A worry is different than worrying. Worries pop into mind all the time and that’s not something you can control. However your response to a worry, including the decision to continue worrying or elaborating on that worry is something you have control over. Accept the worry, control the worrying.
- Chronic worry is often a symptom of low assertiveness. Many people fall into the habit of chronic worry as a way of avoiding or procrastinating on making important but challenging decisions in their life. In other words, they’re afraid to be assertive about what they really want and retreat back into worrying as a way to avoid having to confront their genuine wants and needs assertively.
- The content of your worries are less important than how you react to them. Trying to analyze, disprove, or even understand the content of your worries is usually counterproductive because it tends to lead to more worry. Try to avoid getting sucked into the content of your worries and instead focus on treating them as mental behaviors which you can respond to or not. Just because your worry talks doesn’t mean you have to talk back.
🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Chronic Worry
- Scheduled Worry. Scheduled worry is a simple practice that involves making time to worry on purpose and on paper during a fixed amount of time each day. By rewarding your mind for worrying at “the right” time, it tends to produce less frequent worries throughout the day. Probably the single most effective exercise for reducing chronic worry and anxiety.
- Mindfulness Practice. A mindfulness practice is a powerful way to increase your attentional control—specifically, your ability to quickly notice when you’re worrying, let go of the worry, and keep your focus on something else more productive (and less anxiety producing).
- Assertiveness and Boundaries. One of the best ways to decrease chronic worry (and all the stress and anxiety that come with it) is to practice being more assertive, which typically involves three things: 1) Asking for what you really want, 2) Expressing your genuine opinions and preferences, and 3) Setting (and enforcing) healthy boundaries.
- Emotional Endurance Training. Emotional endurance is the ability to tolerate difficult moods or emotions for long periods of time and stay focused on your goals without attempting to eliminate, fix, or improve your emotional state. Like physical endurance, it’s possible with practice to greatly improve your ability to tolerate difficult emotions like anxiety instead of trying to get rid of them or need a coping mechanism like worry to distract yourself from them.
- Self-compassion. One of the keys to overcoming chronic worry is to retrain your response to worries from self-criticism ("Why do I have to be such a worrier?!") to self-compassion ("I don't like that I worry so much, but it's okay and I can continue on with things despite my worry."). In other words, self-compassion means treating your own worry like you would treat that of a good friend: with understanding and kindness.
💬 Quotes About Chronic Worry
- Worry is a misuse of the imagination. — Dan Zadra
- Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. — Marcus Aurelius
- Do not use your energy to worry. Use your energy to believe, to create, to learn, to think and to grow. — Richard Feynman
- Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. — Corrie Ten Boom
- I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened. — Mark Twain
🔬 Selected Research on Chronic Worry and Anxiety
- Generalized anxiety disorder—of which chronic worry is a primary symptom—affects 6.8 million adults in the U.S. or approximately 3.1% of the population, with women being twice as likely to be affected as men. Source
- Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. A seminal study on the nature of worry by Thomas D Borkovec. Good background info and context for how researchers think about chronic worry.
- Worry and generalized anxiety disorder: a review and theoretical synthesis of evidence on nature, etiology, mechanisms, and treatment. Pretty comprehensive overview of the relationship between worry and anxiety.
- Metacognitive therapy versus cognitive–behavioural therapy in adults with generalised anxiety disorder. Both CBT and Metacognitive (MCT) therapy were effective treatments, but MCT was more effective and led to significantly higher recovery rates (65% v. 38%) which were maintained at a follow-up two years later.
📚 Recommended Reading and Resources for Chronic Worry and Anxiety
- Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic by David H. Barlow. Reviews the conceptual and empirical literature on the nature and treatment of anxiety and worry.
- Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph LeDoux. A detailed overview of the psychology and neuroscience underpinning worry and anxiety.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner’s Treatment Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies. Overview of ACT for anxiety and worry.
- The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson. While not about worry and anxiety directly, learning to be more assertive is one of the best ways to address chronic worry. And this is arguably the best book out there on assertiveness.
- Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression by Adrian Wells. Good introduction to the metacognitive approach to dealing with chronic worry.