What Is Worry?Thursday, May 11, 2023 - 08:43
Thomas Borkovec MD
Guy Slowik FRCS
Worrying is a lasting preoccupation with past or future bad events. It is a type of thinking that makes you feel as if you were reliving a past event or living out a future one, and you cannot stop those thoughts from occurring. Such thoughts are often characterized by the phrases "If only..." and "What if..."
Worry bothers almost everyone periodically. Whenever you are facing problems, your mind will be addressing them and trying to figure out what to do. The mind is a remarkable instrument, able to call back past memories and to picture possible future events. With these abilities, it can take advantage of everything you have learned to help you to adapt to the world.
But at times, worry can create emotional stress.
- You can find yourself thinking about past events that were depressing or anxiety-provoking at the time they happened.
- You can think about all kinds of future events that might happen and which would make you feel badly if they did.
At times, for no obvious reason, you just can't stop thinking about such things. Each time you do think about them, you body reacts just as if the event were actually happening or about to happen.
For example, recall the last time someone criticized you or said something hurtful, or think about a friend acting in an unkind way towards you in the future. The more you think about this happening, the worse you feel. The amazing thing about thinking of such events is that they are not actually happening right now. They exist only in your mind. Yet how you feel right now is being influenced by something that no longer exists or does not yet exist.
Most of the time, if such thoughts come to mind, you can recognize that those events are not happening and can readily dismiss them. Other times, however, you find that you cannot ignore such thoughts; they continue to return to your awareness, and you just cannot stop them.
"If Only" Thoughts
"If only..." refers to thoughts about an unhappy event that you wish hadn't happened. The event has left you with an unresolved emotional feeling, and under these circumstances your mind continues to try to resolve it, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
Unfortunately, in many cases, because the event has already happened, nothing can be done. You cannot go back into the past and miraculously have the event turn out differently. But when your mind recalls the event, its natural tendency is to keep trying to solve the problem it represented.
"What If" Thoughts
"What if..." refers to thoughts about the future. In the case of worry, these thoughts are about any number of possible disagreeable things that could happen.
- "What if I have an automobile accident?"
- "What if I run out of money and can't pay my bills?"
- "What if my spouse should someday no longer love me?"
- "What if I make a mistake and everyone thinks I'm a fool because of it?"
Each of these is a possible future event. If you think about it enough, you can make yourself depressed or anxious, no matter how unlikely it is that such an event will actually happen.