The Worrywart's Companion
    McGraw-Hill, 1997, 2009

     Copyright notice at bottom


Are You Worrying Yourself Sick?
Dr. Beverly Potter

Worrywarts spend a lot of time worrying, in fact, they can't not worry.  Like a manta, fears are chanted repetitively in the worrywart's head, But unlike a mantra, which brings serenity and accompanying health benefits to the meditator, worrying generates anxiety and revves up your body. Once on the fear track, an anxious mind does not deviate.  It is hard to distract.  While this one-track-mindedness can mean survival in a real emergency, when there is no emergency, worrywarts lose perspective, confusing their fears with reality. 

Living in a constant state of alarm stresses your body in the bad way. Your emotional mind reacts to imaged catastrophes as if they were real, sending signals to your body that there is a danger-a threat. Your body mobilizes to ready for the threat. Your emotional mind, noticing tension, triggers more anxiety and worry. A vicious cycle of escalating worry and anxiety is set into motion.

Emotional State and Disease
There is impressive scientific evidence of the negative impact of chronic anxiety upon sickness and recovery. People who are chronically anxious, who suffer long periods of sadness and pessimism, who experience unremitting tension or incessant hostility, or who are cynical or suspicious have a dramatically greater risk of developing disease including asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers and heart disease.
 Your emotional state plays a significant role in your health and vulnerability to disease.  Intense negative emotions of any kind send regular surges of stress hormones through your body.  Chronic anger or agitation puts you at risk healthwise.  It doesn't matter whether these distressing emotions are expressed or held in.  The important factor in their deleterious impact is whether or not negative emotions are chronic. 

Worrying Triggers Negative Emotions
Worrywarting stirs up negative emotions and then keeps reinforcing them over and over until you believe the broken record of fear, uncertainty and doubt. In addition to anger and hostility, most deleterious are feeling victimized, helplessness, out of control, and pressured for time. The emotional mind interprets situations that stir up these feelings as "threatening."  Faced with a threat your body mobilizes by releasing chemical stimulants-sodium lactate, adrenaline, cortisol-to prepare for fight-flight.  Blood pressure goes up, blood sugar level up, digestive system slows down, breathing becomes shallow, stomach muscles contract, the heart pounds. Non-essential functions shutdown, only those essential for survival are keep operating.  You are ready to take action, to confront a life threatening event.  But you are not facing a life threatening event-you are worrywarting, creating exaggerated images in your mind of disasters which your emotional brain responds to as if they were real. 

 Most people don't realize the tremendous impact that a thought, an image, or emotion can have upon the emotional brain, which in turn tells the body how to respond.  Positive stress, like the stress of competition when you feel confident in your ability, for example, contributes to heightened functioning and peak performance. But bad stress like chronic anxiety, frequent hostility, or often feeling helpless, for example, make you more vulnerable to negative life events such job loss, personal injury, trauma, which in turn generate even more stress.

 Unrelenting stress compromises immune functioning and puts excessive demand on cardiovascular system. The more stress, the more likely you will catch cold or come down with the flu or another infectious disease.  Stress has been found to increase vulnerability to viral infections, speed metastasis of cancer, accelerate onset of diabetes, worsen asthma and exacerbate plaque formation. Stress is correlated with arteriosclerosis and suffering myocardial infarction. 

 Some stressors are more injurious than others. When the source of stress is ambiguous, undefined, or prolonged, or when several sources exist simultaneously, you do not return to a normal mental and physiological baseline as rapidly and you will continue to have a potentially damaging stress reaction.  This prolonged activation of your body's basic operating system is fundamental to the development of stress-related disorders. 

Worrywarting, with its parading images of catastrophe, keeps you in a continuous state of alarm, which wears out the body and lowers resistance.  The anxiety generated by worrywarting keeps you in state of disequilibrium, increasing susceptibility to wide range of diseases and disorders. When the emotional brain responds to your worry thoughts by triggering the fight-flight response and you do not fight or flee, but restrain yourself instead, your emotional brain interprets your immobility as insufficient preparation and increases tension.  A high degree of alertness that must be maintained without relief, such as that required of air traffic controller, for example, is extremely stressful and linked to health problems. Similarly the hyperviligence that accompanies chronic worry is tremendously stressful.

Stress is a Response
It is your response to the situation and not the situation itself that causes stress. One person's stressor is another's challenge. It's how you cope with the stress that's important.  Worrywarts cope by worrying. They scare themselves with thoughts of disaster so more brain chemicals are released which triggers more worry and more scary images, going from one frightening thought to another. Feeling out of control, the worrywart worries, "What's wrong with me?" It's vicious cycle caused by your responding to the situation by worrying.

Some worrywarts respond to their fears by getting both anxious and angry. If worry makes you angry then you are doubly in danger. Being prone to anger is a stronger predictor of dying young than are other high risk factor such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. 

There is hope! It's ability to cope with stressful demands and not intensity of the events themselves that cause stress-related health problems.  Worrywarts cope by worrying.  As we've seen, it's a vicious cycle.  Worry begets anxiety, anxiety begets worry, in a never ending spiral. But you can break out of the self-perpetuating trap of anxiety and worry, by learning to worry smart. You don't have try to stop worrying, nor do you have to give in to worry.  Smart worriers use the same skills worrywarts use worry to solve problems and to create their dreams. 

Channel Anxiety
When smart worriers catch themselves obsessing, they stop the worrywarting and redirect their anxiety into productive worry. Smart worriers direct their worry energy rather than being directed by it.  They keep worry in check by talking to themselves like a good friend would.  Cheryl, a veteran worrywart, found that she could catch herself worrywarting and redirect the worry into productive action.  "I have a line of children's stuffed toys.  Our new "love bear" was moving really fast and we had to go back to manufacturing three times already.  We still job out our production. Anyway, our distributer was insistent about our needing to order 50 thousand units. I had real reservations about it and thought 25 thousand was more realistic.  Nonetheless, against my better judgement we ordered the 50 thousand to be manufactured.  And no sooner than they hit the warehouse than sales took a nose dive."

 "I immediately began worrying about all those extra love bears sitting in the warehouse and our money just sitting there on the floor.  Then I worried that we would never get our money back.  Next thing I'm imagining my house in foreclosure, and me becoming a bag lady.  I was really geting my self worked up into a panic.  Then I suddenly became aware of what I was doing.  And I was proud that I caught myself early on this time." 
 "Anyway, I said to myself, 'Stop it! I'm worrywarting!' Then I asked myself, 'What would a smart worrier do? What would a supportive friend advise me to do?"  The answer was easy. 'Well, take that anxious energy and redirect it from worrying about sales, to getting out there, marketing and getting sales.'  And I thought to myself, 'Yes! Now that's something I can do.  I can take command here and make sales happen.  This is not a catastrophie, it's a challenge.' And then I got a new and potentially great account and sold 1000 unitsthat afternoon!  Worrying smart sure paid off for me."

Cheryl stopped her worrywarting and channeled her fears into sales. Instead of obsessing over awful-and highly unlikely-possible disasters, smart worriers channel their anxiety into productive worry. They take the worry as a signal that a situation needs attention.  Then they focus on solving the problem at hand rather than worrying about the very unlikely worse case scenarios. They direct their worry energy rather than being directed by it.  Smart worriers keep worry in check, by talking to themselves like a good friend would to soothe themselves instead of scaring themselves.  Smart worriers get results, they make an action plan.  They set their worries on the side of the road until it is the time and place to worry. Smart worriers use relaxation and other techniques to nurture their bodies and protect themselves from the harmful effects of stress. Smart worriers use their worry power to change the way they view situations from pessimistic to optimistic, from danger to challenge. 

You, too, can become a smart worrier.  Using the techniques in this book you can transform yourself from a worrywart to a smart worrier.  And in the process you'll feel better and get more of what you want from life by worrying smart.

Are Your a Worrywart?  Find out.  Take the quiz.



Copyright;  The Worrywart's Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart, Dr. Beverly Potter, 1997, 2009, McGraw-Hill.  This article may be downloaded or copied for personal use.  Any other use requires permission form Beverly Potter.