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Oh, No! Now What Could Go Wrong? : Behavior: Once we viewed chronic worriers as people who could stop, if only they would. Now experts think extreme worry is an addictive pattern with serious consequences.

March 30, 1993|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Gia was the matriarch of a large family, the beloved "Grammy." But she was more than that. Her children and grandchildren recall her as the Official Family Worrier.

"I can't remember a time when Grammy wasn't worried about something," says Charles, a grandson who lives in Los Angeles. "She was always worried about one of us, that we were sick too much or that we would get in some kind of trouble. And she always worried about her health, although she was relatively well her whole life. Until, of course, she worried herself to death."

We all know them: the walking worried. The worry warts of the world. The woe-is-me, hand-wringing . . . well, you get the idea.

Generally, chronic worriers have been considered somewhat annoying people who could stop worrying if they wanted but who instead get a perverse pleasure from it.

That view may be unsympathetic. In recent years, chronic worriers have attracted greater interest among psychologists, who now believe that extreme worrying is an addictive thought pattern that can lead to serious mental and physical consequences. But they also say it is something that can be successfully "treated" with hard work.

"In therapy it has always been considered as not very serious and that there was not much you could do about it," says Dr. Gary Emery, a worry expert and director of the Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Therapy. "Surprisingly, for how prevalent it is and how much suffering it causes, it hasn't been studied much."

Experts' efforts over the last decade have been devoted to defining chronic or obsessive worrying. After all, everyone worries. But what is the difference between worrying a little and worrying a lot?

A chronic worrier, Emery says, is "someone who has a morbid preoccupation with what can go wrong. Chronic worrying is unrealistic in the sense that it's unhelpful and it's counterproductive. It's realistic in the sense that what you're worried about could actually happen. It's not paranoia like, 'The CIA is after me.' "

Terry Sandbeck, a worry expert in Sacramento, calls chronic worrying a destructive thought process. An anxiety disorder, by contrast, occurs when chronic worrying begins to interfere with daily living and leads people to believe they are incapable of dealing with their fears.

"If an individual is in a situation where they have no control over what is happening, then to continue thinking about it, it's called worry. To think about it and then drop it is concern," he says.

Although researchers believe there may be a genetic component, at least some of the habit seems to be learned. Says Emery: "In some families it's almost like someone had to have the role to worry."

It's clear that excessive worrying can begin as soon as a child is old enough to anticipate the future, says Michael Vasey, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Although little is known about chronic worry in children, Vasey and others have found that in adults, worriers seem to latch on to a thought and ruminate about it. Non-worriers, however, get concerned about something and either take some action or forget about it.

In a recent study, Vasey looked at 48 college students, half of whom were found to be chronic worriers. When asked what worried them, both groups gave similar responses: academic success, relationships and health.

The students were then asked, "What is it about getting good grades that worries you?" And this is where the difference stood out. Worriers produced much longer lists of possible consequences.

For example, chronic worriers saw a stronger likelihood that not getting good grades would eventually result in pain, physical deterioration and death. To a non-worrier, the result might be unhappiness and strain, but nothing beyond that.

"Worriers start to think about what can go wrong. It makes them anxious, and they seek to stop thinking about it," Vasey says. "The problem is they never resolve anything. The next time their attention isn't taken up by something else, here comes the thought again."

Worriers, it seems, can't get beyond worrying. And that can lead to big trouble.

Mental health experts have only recently started to investigate whether chronic worry is the underlying factor in cases of anxiety or depression.

In Vasey's study, he was stunned to see how large a role worrying seemed to play in some people's lives. The worriers in his group said they spent at least half of their waking hours worrying. In contrast, the others said they worry less than 10% of each day.

"I find it mind-boggling to think that people worry that much," he says. "I doubt that they really spend that much time worrying. But it suggests how salient worrying is to these people, how distracting it is."

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