There were periods in my life when I couldn’t stop worrying about things. It was partly due to circumstances — I’d moved to another country, changed my career path and had to take care of my family all at the same time.
But soon, my anxiousness grew disproportionate. I worried about the weather, about leaving good impressions on people I’d never see again. I was constantly haunted by the feeling that I had to take care of something.
I mostly worried about things that were out of my control and it was new to me.
Growing up, I had a happy-go-lucky attitude and worried less than I probably should have.
The stress of getting good grades, weathering high school crushes, making future plans — all of it passed me by somehow. I used to be more or less carefree.
That’s clearly not true for everyone. Some of my closest friends say they’ve been plagued with unreasonable worries since the dawn of time. Is it in our genes or can we become chronic worriers out of the blue?
Graham Davey, a psychology professor at the University of Sussex, says that there is no such thing as a born worrier. Instead, there are a number of factors that contribute to it becoming a chronic state.
Worrying behavior often stems from environmental factors, such as childhood trauma that led to negative self-evaluation or parents who nurtured insecure attachment styles.
Admittedly, there is a genetic component to consider — anxiety can run in the family. But the way people react to anxious thoughts is psychological, not genetic.
Some people learn to worry as toddlers, while others develop the habit later in life. Either way, the main problem is that the habit can be very difficult to shake off.
In the majority of cases, chronic worriers simply can’t live without worrying because they think it will lead to favorable outcomes.
Worrying becomes a reflex. Or, as Professor Davey says, constant worriers tend to believe their worrying has something to do with preventing bad things from happening (even when it very clearly doesn’t).
He also adds that excessive worry stems from delusions about oneself and the world.
Of course, these delusions vary in their severity. Some people develop a fear of being chased, stalked, haunted, or even murdered — but this kind of paranoid thinking is widely recognized as a problem that can reduce quality of life. People prone to these thoughts get treatments accordingly.
But there are also other, more ‘benign’ delusions that focus on people’s day-to-day life, and these can fly under the radar.
Consider superstitions. While some can have an anxiety-soothing effect, most of them cause problems because they strengthen our belief that we’re responsible for things outside of our control. It’s a benign delusion that seeing a black cat will cause you bad luck — but it can lead to unnecessary anxiety and fearfulness.
Worrying doesn’t solve the problem, it just obscures it.
We convince ourselves that worrying is somehow good for us. That it will keep us on the lookout for possible slip-ups we could prevent. Chronic worriers like to think they’re always one step ahead of things.
But here’s what really happens.
Amidst all that unpleasant worrying, we actually forget to solve the problem that set us off in the first place. We fall into a perpetual loop of identifying potential challenges and problems instead of trying to resolve them.
No matter how maladaptive this behavior is, it is also highly addictive.
What can you do about it?
The biggest mistake is trying to forcibly eliminate all worry from our lives.
That just isn’t feasible — worry is an inseparable part of what makes us human.
Excessive worry, on the other hand, pushes us into a dysfunctional mental state, debilitating our ability to think clearly and calmly. So instead of aiming at eliminating the worry, we need to aim for clarity. We should ask ourselves why we are worried in the first place, and we must try to be realistic about what we can influence and what we can’t.
Repeat to yourself: “Worrying will not prevent bad things from happening.”
In all probability, the scenarios that keep replaying in your head won’t happen.
If your boss suddenly scheduled a meeting, that doesn’t mean you will get fired (and that you’ll immediately stop being able to provide for your family, and then lose the car, lose the house, etc.)
Catastrophizing is a way to inflate real problems and get lost in worst-case scenarios.
Instead, go over the facts of the situation. Is your superior satisfied with your work? Is there something you should do differently from now on? You’ll find out during the meeting, so there’s no use playing guessing games in advance.
It’s not easy to overcome excessive worry. But the first step is to draw a line between what’s realistic and what isn’t.
Seeking professional advice could be a big help — an expert can find flaws in your thinking that you weren’t aware of.
Since you’re not a born worrier — and nobody is — that means you can unlearn this habit. It just takes patience and persistence.
Eric Sangerma is an entrepreneur, founder of TrulyScaled.com and Wholistique.com and co-host of The Wholistique Show which explores how to reach peak personal and professional performance while living a minimal and balanced life. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Liza Summer.