You can’t tell a worrier to stop worrying. You can’t say to them, “be mindful of your thoughts. Let them in, and then gently let them go.” It’s not that simple. Worriers will tell you that they have no control over their worried minds. “It’s hereditary”, they say. “It’s an engrained habit. It’s part of my make-up. I worry a lot. Worry,” they say with a sigh, “is just something I have to live with”.
But is this clinically correct? Are some of us born worriers? And if so, is there nothing to be done to remove the black shadow that worry casts over our lives? Psychology professor Graham Davey at the University of Sussex thinks that worriers do not suffer from a hereditary predisposition for worry. “No, worriers are not born, they are made,” he writes. “There is no evidence that worry is inherited.”
Rather, he argues that worriers can’t stop worrying because they hold delusional beliefs about the self and the world. And unless those delusional beliefs are corrected, a worrier will keep on worrying regardless of what you or I say to stop them. So, what does Davey actually mean by “delusional”? He is referring to inner beliefs that do not reflect the world, or reality.
We often think of ‘delusions’ at the extreme end of the mental health spectrum, such as people convinced they’re being tracked by the CIA, or poisoned, or they’re gods, extreme beings with sovereign talents, knowledge, and worth, or people who are adamant that their loyal husband is cheating on them, contrary to the lack of evidence, or those who are certain that their phone is tapped, their mail read, that surveillance systems are watching them from the sky. But some delusions are more benign, or more realistic, such as the delusion that worry is in some way beneficial in our lives, is good for us, means that bad stuff is less likely to happen, and that worry helps us to come up with better solutions.
As to where and when these delusions started, is beside the point. What Davey stresses is that these delusions are what’s behind the perseverance of worrying thought. So rather than striving to cut worry from our lives, we need to analyse why we worry in the first place.
“If I’m anxious about something, it must mean it’s a threat or a problem, so I should worry about it,” states Davey as an example of delusional thinking about worry. “No”, he says. “This is called the fallacy of ex-consequential reasoning.” Feeling anxious can be due to all kinds of things, from having too many coffees in a day, to having skipped lunch, low sugar levels, tiredness, or just being in a bad mood. What you happen to be thinking about at the time of the anxious feeling does not mean it’s a threat or a problem.
Worriers convince themselves that what they worry about is likely to happen. Many catastrophise their worries to the worst-case scenario and get into a panic thinking that if this happens, then this may happen, and then this, and “oh, I will not cope”. Davey states bluntly, “No - most of the things that worriers worry about are highly unlikely to ever happen.” And catastrophised worries are “highly improbable”. Let’s say, for example, your head hurts. And you feel tired. And you start to worry there’s something seriously wrong with you, and then worry about what will happen if there is: what about work? Who will look after the children? As you can see, nothing has happened other than suffering a mild headache, possibly due to dehydration, or tension, but your mind has gone into overdrive. This kind of thinking is delusional, not unlike the person who thinks their neighbour is a spy and starts to avoid them in the street, shutting their curtains during daylight hours. Yes, of course, we’re not talking about psychosis here, but irrational worrying is delusional all the same. The information is not based on sensible thinking, on reality, on fact; it’s a personal conspiracy theory.
Another delusional thought is that worrying will prevent bad things from happening. The chronic worrier will rarely board a plane before running through the list of disasters that could await them. By doing so, the worrier thinks the simple act of worrying will somehow prevent the worst from taking place - perhaps by some act of magic symbiosis. Catch a worrier on a plane who’s forgotten to do their ritual of worry and the plane lurches to the right, the worrier, who has forgotten to worry, will go into worry overdrive. Having forgotten to do their ritual of worry, the risks, so thinks the worrier, are now somehow higher. It’s irrational, but it’s what’s fuelling the persistent of worry.
Worries think that all decisions and problems need to be painstakingly analysed, with all possible outcomes deliberated upon, before making a choice. Snap decisions, think the worrier, are irresponsible and risky. But as Davey argues, gut instinct has proven to be one of the more effective ways of decision-making, used by many successful people. When we think about things too much, we can actually make worst choices than just going with what feels right. “Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment,” writes Dale Carnegie, the self-help guru, and author of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
Worriers have rituals not just for themselves, but for others as well. Worrying types are forever telling loved ones to “keep safe” and “take care.” It’s their way of showing concern, and, at the same time, hopefully preventing bad things from taking place. The delusion here is that the act of saying “take care” will prevent something tragic from happening, almost like a magic incantation that helps propel the future towards some desired end. But, as we all know, the future is utterly uncertain no matter what magic words we chant. And as Davey says, “there’s nothing worse than knowing that someone else is continually worrying about you.” Instead he says, “if you do care about someone, then let them know in more direct ways.”
Another worry delusion, according to Davey, is the thinking that, “I must think through all the possible things that might happen otherwise I won’t be prepared.” But Davey says that most of the things we worry about will never happen, including all the potential outcomes that we can possibly think up. As Mary Hemingway, the fourth wife to author Ernest Hemingway, put it, “If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything.”
A handy strategy to cope with ‘over-thinking’ is to dedicate a special worry space sometime in the future. Chose a day and time, place a note in your diary, and say to yourself, “OK, I will worry about this in at 10am on Thursday,” which might be three days away. Dedicate this time to sitting down on your balcony, under a tree in a park, or at your favourite thinking space, and, chances are, by Thursday you’ll have utterly forgotten what it was you were supposed to worry about, or the magnitude of the problem will have shrunk considerably. Opening up worry to time and space gives it a chance to disperse, much like throwing it into a river and allowing nature to slowly roll it about, over and over, until it starts to soften, and submerge.
And so, it is, as we suspected, that worry saps energy. It replaces creative thought with useless musings. Worrying does nothing for us, other than makes us worry about worrying, and worry even more.
But no, worry is not hereditary. We are not born to worry, we are made. As the Chinese proverb suggests: “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” While it may feel at times that your worry is uncontrollable, you can learn to worry less. And when you do, you’ll start to free up energy and time that can be dedicated to more joyful musings. And it’s this the meaning of life?
Your daily fix
Convinced you’re suffering from a panic attack or a fit of anxiety? You’re convinced something has triggered an anxiety attack and your mind hunts down what has caused it. You convince yourself that something must be worrying you, or something has happened, or will happen. You convince yourself that you can’t cope. But before you spiral downwards, take a moment to consider how much caffeine you’ve consumed, and that includes coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks, and even decaf which still has some caffeine in it. The effects of caffeine mimic anxiety almost exactly - rapid heart rate, fast breathing, elevated body temperature. What can feel like anxiety - a general unexplained nervousness - is often nothing more than your sympathetic nervous system getting overly stimulated by caffeine. According to some researchers, too much caffeine in the system (usually measured at more than 200 mg a day) can result in general anxiety, obsessive compulsive and even phobic-type behaviours. Caffeine boosts epinephrine levels in the body, which is one of the hormones in the fight or flight response. It blocks the central nervous system depressant, adenosine, making us focussed, energised, and positively alert, unless of course, you’re prone to worry, and this aroused state can be accompanied by frightful negativity.
But not for everyone. People react to caffeine in different ways. So, should you avoid caffeine entirely if you’re susceptible to anxiety? While it may seem sensible to cut it out entirely, some psychologists actually prefer patients to keep the habit up. By learning to rationalise the caffeine effect, anxiety patients learn to discern the body effects from caffeine, and by doing so they learn to me more rational about anxiety overall and start to look for cues from the body, but just the mind when they’re feeling fretful. Have I eaten lunch? Is my body telling me it’s time I go for my run?