Feature Archive

9 Steps to End Chronic Worrying

Experts explain how to reduce excessive worrying that can have mental and physical effects.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Are you a worry wart? A nervous Nellie? Do you constantly fret about everything and anything from your health to how you are perceived at work to whether or not a terror strike is imminent?

If this sounds like you, then you may be worrying your life away. This excessive worry doesn't just affect your mental health; it also can wreak havoc on your physical well-being. That's why WebMD spoke with experts about the reasons some of us worry excessively—and ways to break this cycle and regain your life.

Who Are the Worriers?

Why are some people so prone to "what if disease," while others merely worry about something when it happens?

There are several reasons, explains Robert L. Leahy, PhD, the author of The Worry Cure: 7 Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You and the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City.

"There is a genetic component," he says. "There are also nurture or non-nurture factors."

For example, people who come from divorced homes are 70% more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder—characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry, and tension.

Overprotective parents tend to raise worriers as well, he says. "Reverse parenting may also play a role." This occurs when the child is taking care of the parents because they are not functioning well.

"There is probably is a biological component to chronic worry, but there is also an early environment component," agrees Sandy Taub, PsyD, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Wilmington, Del. "The feeling of safety that 'my mother will keep me safe' should be internalized and grow along with you so that, for the most part, you feel secure," she explains.

"But if you had a mom who was not as available and not consistent, you can develop the mind-set that the world is not such a safe place." Divorce and overprotection can also gnaw away at a person's feelings of internal safety and security.

What Makes Us Worry?

So now we know who worries, but why do they worry? "People worry because they think something bad will happen or could happen, so they activate a hypervigilant strategy of worry and think that 'if I worry I can prevent this bad thing from happening or catch it early,'" Leahy says. Put another way: If you didn't worry, things might get out of hand. The worrier's credo is that if you can simply imagine something bad happening, it's your responsibility to worry about it.

And all this worry can affect your physical as well as your mental health. Worriers tend to be overutilizers of the health care system, meaning they see their doctor for just about every ache and pain, Leahy says.

"Worriers are more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, fatigue, and aches and pains," he says.In addition, 93% of people with generalized anxiety disorder also have an overlapping psychiatric disorder such as depression, according to Leahy.

Do You Worry Too Much?

Worrying doesn't always deserve such a bad rap. Sometimes worry is a good thing, says Bruce Levin, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. "If there is an actual threat then there is something to worry about," he says. "If you run into a bear in the woods, you have something to worry about."In these cases, "not worrying may be more of a problem than to worry."

So how much worry is too much worry?

"It depends on the degree to which that disproportionate worry affects you and how much you are suffering and how much it limits you," he says. "If it's posing interference in your life or is enough of a problem or nuisance that you are distressed, the good news is there is help."

9 Worry-Busting Steps

No. 1. Make a list of your worries. Identify what you are worried about, says Leahy.

No. 2. Analyze the list. "Look at whether your worry is productive or unproductive," Leahy says. A productive worry is one that you can do something about right now. For example, "I am going to Italy, so I may be worried about making plane and hotel reservations," he says. "This is a productive worry because I can take action now by going online to make reservations."