Worry is a natural part of our mental lives – in fact, it's part of what makes humans so hugely successful as a species. But at what point should worry become a source of, well... worry?
Everyone has that little voice in their head… The one that asks you, “What if this goes wrong? That would be awful! And what will happen then? And how will I cope?” Worrying about the future is part of what makes us human. In fact, our ability to foresee future scenarios – and plan around them – is one of the faculties that have guaranteed our overwhelming dominance as a species.
But that doesn’t mean worrying is optimal. And worrying is very different from just thinking about stuff. Worry is a chain of thoughts aimed at problem-solving a negative outcome, accompanied by negative emotion – namely, low-level fear. It usually begans with a 'What if...' question, and can lead into relentless spirals of anxious rumination.
But when does worrying about the future become a mental health issue? There are several ways to distinguish normal worry from pathological worry. Firstly, the duration of the worry is important. If you find that you’re habitually spending most of the day engaged in mental problem-solving, this could be a warning sign.
A second factor is the intensity of the anxiety involved. If you notice regular symptoms of anxiety such as your heart racing, difficulty concentrating, feeling restless or ‘wired’ or trouble sleeping, this could mean your anxiety is reaching clinical levels.
A third way of telling if your worry is out of hand is the scope of the worry. If you find yourself planning solutions to all possible scenarios, and worrying to a degree that seems out of proportion to the actual outcome, this could also be a telltale sign that your worry is getting out of control. Another typical trait of worriers is to be paralysed when required to make choices. This indecisiveness can stem from an intolerance of uncertainty... How can I be certain what the right choice will be?
Worry that has veered out of control is the hallmark of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a disorder which can be diagnosed by a licensed psychologist, and for which there are effective treatments available. The gold-standard treatment for GAD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but there is also strong evidence for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as mindfulness-based treatments.
So if you think worry might be a problem for you, don’t hesitate to seek help. You might be surprised by just how much your outlook can brighten once worry is under control.