There's the deadline for the project at the office. The kids are struggling in school, the bills are piling up and tax time is drawing near.
Worries. Everyone has them. But now, psychologists are attempting to learn more about these vexations, and their findings suggest some intriguing ways to combat this mental obsession.
"Worry is uncontrollable negative thinking," says psychologist Thomas Borkovec, who studies worry at Pennsylvania State University. Thoughts and images evoked during worry are "anxiety provoking," Borkovec says. They usually center on "anticipation of a future catastrophe," and the mind is filled with "What if's . . ."
By worrying, the mind attempts "to problem-solve, usually unsuccessfully," says William Carter, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Often the person who worries ends up with negative thoughts, such as "I can't do this" or "I'm no good."
Worry creeps into your mind when "you don't want it to," adds psychologist Rowland Follensbee, who worked as a graduate student with the Pennsylvania State team studying worry and is now in private practice in Houston. Moreover, he says, worry "interferes with other thoughts and actions" and "reduces how well you focus on the details that are required for everyday life."
One of the major problems of worrying, Follensbee says, is the "inability to shut it off." Studies show that brief worrying only whets the mind's appetite for more negative thoughts. Preliminary results of psychological tests indicate that if a person worries for 15 minutes and then attempts to do other mental tasks, performance diminishes, apparently because those worried thoughts still nag the mind. Worrying for "15 minutes arouses and incubates worry," says Follensbee, although researchers don't know why this happens.
Slightly longer worrying, however, seems to let the mind move on to other things. If the same person worries for 30 minutes and then tries to do the other mental tasks, Follensbee notes, performance actually improves -- again for unknown reasons. Since worries are usually intertwined with fear, researchers think that by concentrating longer on these vexing thoughts, they become less frightening and gradually diminish worry. WW orry is a universal activity, which makes it a "normal process," says W the University of Virginia's Carter. Yet studies also indicate that there are chronic worriers -- people who report spending more than 50 percent of their time focused on worrying. By studying these super-fretters, researchers hope to learn more about the mental processes involved in all forms of thinking.
How do chronic worriers and nonworriers differ? Super-fretters "worry a lot more intensely, a lot longer, and they have a lot more trouble stopping worrying than nonworriers," reports Carter. Evidence suggests that "chronic worriers may have attentional deficits," he says, which give them shorter attention spans.
Brain wave studies of chronic worriers also point to some physiological differences between chronic worriers and nonworriers. EEG tests -- electroencephalography -- record the electrical pulses generated by the firing of some 10 billion cells in the brain. In one study, Carter measured the EEG readings of 40 people -- 20 chronic worriers and 20 nonworriers -- as they performed different mental tasks. Among these tasks: worrying, doing mental arithmetic and relaxing. The results showed that worriers had an overactivated left side of the brain compared to nonworriers. The worriers also exhibited a lower level of alpha-wave readings -- a measure of how relaxed a person is -- and demonstrated more activity in the brain's cortex, which suggests greater agitation.
In another controlled laboratory study, Pennsylvania State's Borkovec found differences in the type of thoughts reported by worriers and nonworriers. Participants sat alone in a quiet room and "let their minds wander." At regular intervals, a timer sounded, and Borkovec asked each subject what he or she had been thinking just before the timer went off. "chronic worriers were filled with more negative thoughts than nonworriers," Borkovec reports.
Yet the pattern of worrying can be broken. In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy last fall, Follensbee reported that behavior modification can be used to help worriers discard some of their negative thoughts. Follensbee taught worriers to fret only during specific times of the day. People in the study cut their worrying time in half, while a control group showed no change in the hours spent worrying.