You worry about passing your exam and surviving your presentation. You worry about making a mistake at work. You worry about not having enough money to pay this month’s bills. You worry about the email you just sent, which misspelled your new coworker’s name. Ughhh.
Some days, it feels like you worry for breakfast, lunch and dinner (with a few snacks in between). Lately, you’ve been wondering if your worry is actually normal. You’ve been wondering, am I worrying too much?
Worry is normal, natural and even adaptive in certain situations, according to Emily Bilek, Ph.D, an assistant professor of clinical psychology who specializes in anxiety disorders at the University of Michigan.
Worry is adaptive when you use it to motivate yourself to take action or to problem solve, she said. In fact, psychologist and anxiety disorder expert Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, noted that this type of worry isn’t worry at all. Rather it’s known as “conceptual planning.” (Chapman said that “normal worry” is essentially a misnomer. But we’ll use the term here for simplicity sake.)
Conceptual planning (i.e., “normal worry”) looks like: Studying for your exam a few days in advance and preparing for your presentation (gently reminding yourself that you’ll do the best you can). Striving to focus at work and finding ways to cut out distractions, such as social media (and gently reminding yourself that mistakes are possible. After all, no one is flawless). Examining your budget, reallocating some money and picking up extra shifts at work. Sending a quick email to your new colleague apologizing for the error.
This is very different from forcing yourself to memorize your entire presentation, word for word. It’s very different from avoiding checking your bank account, procrastinating on paying the bills and ruminating about a range of catastrophic scenarios—like losing your house. It’s very different from avoiding your colleague and assuming he thinks you’re an idiot.
These kinds of reactions might signal an anxiety disorder—specifically generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). According to Bilek, “the main difference between normal worry and GAD is the response to the worry.”
People with GAD tend to engage in unhelpful behaviors, such as: seeking reassurance from others; procrastinating; over-preparing; and perseverating on things they can’t change or control. They tend to worry most days of the week and experience significant impairment, Bilek said. (For instance, you have a hard time functioning at school or work.)
Bilek shared this example, which illustrates GAD’s unhelpful behaviors: An employee, who worries about making mistakes, sends an email to one of his supervisors addressing her as “Mrs. Smith,” but she prefers “Dr. Smith.” As soon as he hits “send,” he starts imagining the supervisor reading the email and the catastrophic ways she’ll interpret it.
He tells himself: “Dr. Smith thinks I am stupid and incompetent. Or maybe she thinks that I am being intentionally disrespectful. She is going to tell my other supervisors how disrespectful I am, and everyone in the office will start to think I am a rude colleague. They probably think I don’t deserve that promotion that I am up for. It will be so awkward every time I see her and my other colleagues now.”
According to Chapman, “GAD is defined as excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events and activities in one’s daily life, in addition to physiological symptoms.” These symptoms include: sleep troubles, muscle tension, restlessness and difficulty concentrating.
Individuals with GAD also are unable to control the frequency and duration of their worry, Chapman said. In other words, they can’t turn off their worrying. They can’t simply stop.
Their worry is driven by chronic levels of anxiety and maintained by negative reinforcement, he said. “[W]orry is a cognitive process that involves the generation of multiple, potentially negative events. When the threat fails to occur, the process of worry is reinforced due to the assumption that one is engaging in problem solving.” (Yet problem solving doesn’t involve chronic worry.)
GAD manifests in different ways, according to Bilek. One person with GAD might be petrified about making mistakes. For another person with GAD, mistakes aren’t an issue. Instead, their fears revolve around their family’s health and natural disasters.
“At the end of the day, Bilek said, one litmus test is: How much does worry—and the related behaviors—get in the way of daily living?” Because if it feels like worry is impairing and invading your life, it’s time to see a therapist who specializes in anxiety for a proper evaluation. This can be scary. But the wonderful news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable. The wonderful news is that you can get better. And you can start right now: Visit findcbt.org, treatment.adaa.org or our therapist finder to find an anxiety specialist.