An explanation of worry

Worry is a two-part process including an uncertain question and an attempt to answer it. Whether the attempt to answer it occurs via analysis, problem-solving, distracting, or getting reassurance, the attempt to answer is always problematic because it can never “solve” an unanswerable question and it makes the original uncertainty feel more threatening. 

We typically say that you have generalized anxiety if you struggle against thoughts that are ego-syntonic— meaning consistent with your sense of what is important. You have obsessive-compulsive disorder if you struggle against thoughts that are ego-dystonic— meaning inconsistent with your sense of what is important. Many anxious people have both.

As an example, the person with generalized anxiety fears: “what if my child doesn’t get into college?” and, in thought and action, attempts to answer that uncertain, unanswerable question.

The person with obsessive-compulsive disorder fears: “what if my child is in the freezer?” and also, in thought and action, tries to be certain about this uncertain thought.

Where worrying about your child’s future seems reasonable to most people, worrying about your child being in the freezer seems “irrational” or “unreasonable” to most people, so they have an added layer of confusion, frustration, and shame about why they keep worrying, getting reassurance, and checking. 

Some worriers are worrying so incessantly that they don’t know what it’s like to experience their minds in any other way. Planning, solving problems, and responding to important internal and external cues is mixed in with running through catastrophic scenarios of anything they can imagine going wrong. Many worriers resonate with the sentiment: “If it’s possible, I can worry about it.”

Many worriers are also very effective problem solvers, and they know it. Trying to refrain from worrying can feel like they aren’t doing something important. Worry is constructive and effective when it alerts you to a real problem on which you can take real action. I would never attempt to make you less effective. Worry is problematic when it is actually uncertainty masquerading around like a problem.

The previous post explained the two questions you should ask yourself when you notice a worry: is this a problem I can solve and can I do something about it in the present moment? The next post will explain how you can identify and contain your worries.

In addition to uncertainty masquerading around as a problem, the habit of worry due to unrecognized belief problems (see previous posts) can also keep it going. Worry reduces affect, so sometimes people worry to prevent themselves from feeling other feelings that they don’t want to feel.

Some worriers are not effective problem solvers; they just worry about problems but don’t take action. Sometimes this a skill-deficient, as in worrying about a math test when you don’t understand the material or worrying about a presentation when you haven’t written it yet. An effective worrier will use these worries to signal that they should make a plan to study or prepare for the presentation. An ineffective worrier will notice the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and become paralyzed or preoccupied by the worry itself. At this point, the problem is now worry about worry. Some people who experience this quandary start avoiding activities they really care about, because they can’t seem to make the worry go away nor solve the problem.

If you avoid rather than solve real problems that you care about in your life, consider thinking about your problem as worry about worry.

First, you’ll need to learn to tolerate the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up when you are aware of a problem.

Next, you’ll practice taking effective steps to solve the problem, in the presence of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

I know this may seem daunting, but remember that your mind and body are very adaptive and what you think and feel will change as you practice.

Walking, talking, reading, and adding were all tough… until they weren’t. When you go towards problems in your life, without shame or self-criticism, you will eventually feel effective over them and confident pursuing them. The difficult thoughts and feelings won’t be so difficult.