Mental Health
Jul 16, 2024

Why do we Worry… and when might it be a problem?

Worrying is a normal human behaviour. It involves the thoughts, images, feelings, and body sensations we experience when evaluating threats or dangers in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Thousands of years ago the human brain developed an ‘alarm system’, namely the amygdala, to detect threats and activate fear-related behaviours such as fight, flight, or freeze in response to dangerous stimuli (e.g., think of lions, and tigers, and bears!). In readiness to deal with the threat, the body is flooded with messages to increase the heart rate, change breathing, dilate pupils, tense muscles, increase sweating, and decrease digestion. This ‘alarm system’ helped to keep us safe and still does so today when we are faced with real threats to our lives.

When might worry be a problem:

Interestingly, the amygdala can respond in the same way to perceived threats in our modern-day world as it does to real threats. For example, worrying about perceived threats such as, “what if they don’t like me?” or “what if I fail?” can trigger the same bodily sensations (i.e., increased heart rate, shortness of breath, tense muscles) and fear-related behaviours (e.g., flight, flight, freeze). The problem here is that the very behaviours that keep us ‘safe’ when responding to real threats are now often related to feeling ‘insecure’ when responding to perceived threats. This is because the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response tends to work well for ‘real alarms’ but is often ineffective for ‘false alarms’. We can identify false alarms as worrying about future events, that may or may not happen, compared to real threats such as a fire that we need to escape from. When we respond to false alarms with fear-related behaviours, such as flight or avoidance, we tend to re-enforce the amygdala to stay hypervigilant to these perceived future threats. In turn, worries about perceived future threats increase and the cycle of ‘anxiety’ continues. A side-effect of this approach to perceived threats is that it often moves us away from the very thing we want. For example, I may want to be liked by someone, but worry, “what if they don’t like me?”. This is related to the perceived threat of ‘not belonging’. When we respond to the perceived threat with the fear-related behaviour of flight, we tend to ‘avoid’ the person for fear they might reject us and therefore move away from the very thing we want – to be liked and belong.

Helpful ways to manage worrying:

  1. Schedule 20 minutes of “worry time” at the same time each day. Limit yourself to this worry time, and practice mindfulness when worries arise outside of this time.
  1. Practice 5 minutes of daily mindfulness – sit quietly, ground your feet, focus on your breath and bodily sensations (observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them)
  1. Distinguish between solvable and unsolvable worries – practice problem solving for solvable worries and practice acceptance for unsolvable worries
  1. Journal your worries and challenge them – what evidence supports or refutes your worry and how likely is it to happen? Is there a positive way of looking at the situation? Is this within or out of your control?
  1. Practice breathing and relaxation exercises
  1. Journal weekly what you are grateful for and what you appreciate

Continue reading