Why Do We Worry?
It is a part of human nature to worry; be it about health, finances, family, and relationships. Worry is adaptive in some contexts, as it can help us to preserve our safety and avoid injury or death; for example, when driving a car in dangerous conditions, or when walking on a tightrope. For this reason, worry can be adaptive. For many of us however, worry can be insidious, and may interfere with our lives in ways that are disruptive and distressing. Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition that involves chronic worry, in addition to symptoms such as muscle tension, feeling ‘keyed-up’ and on-edge, and irritability. Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder describe their worry as being uncontrollable and pervasive; arising in relation to various areas of life including work, relationships, education, finances, and health. When the normal phenomenon of worry reaches heights that are disruptive to this point, individuals may meet criteria for a generalized anxiety disorder. In the below sections, theories of worry are discussed in order to shed light on why this process arises, and why some individuals become stuck.
A verbal-linguistic process
Worry has been seen by some as an exclusively verbal process. That is, worry has been seen as a phenomenon involving thoughts, rather than images. According to the avoidance model of worry, individuals who engage in worry regularly, do so in order to avoid experiencing strong emotions that arise in relation to various events. For example, an individual may worry about their financial situation in order to avoid mental imagery of filing for bankruptcy. Alternatively, an individual may worry excessively about an argument they have had with their spouse in order to avoid negative mental imagery of their partner breaking up with them. Thus according to the avoidance model of worry, individuals may worry in order to avoid feeling emotions that may arise in the event of the ‘worst-case scenario’.
Intolerance of uncertainty
Researchers have argued that individuals who worry do so as a result of a reduced ability to tolerate uncertainty. Specifically, individuals who are prone to high levels of worry may engage in repetitive thinking about what might happen, or what to do if a negative outcome occurs, during situations where there is a degree of uncertainty. For instance, an individual who is prone to worry may worry excessively after apparently driving through a red light, but not knowing for sure whether the light was indeed red or orange. This individual’s uncertainty over whether they have committed an offense may lead them to repetitively reconstruct the situation in their mind in order to gain a sense of certainty, or alternatively, worry about how they are going to tell their partner about the prospect of receiving a hefty fine. This intolerance of uncertainty has been shown to be a significant risk factor for developing generalized anxiety disorder.
According to the emotion dysregulation theory of generalized anxiety disorder, individuals with this condition are prone to experiencing strong emotions in relation to various life events, and may consequently engage in worry as a strategy to regulate these emotions. The theory holds that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder experience emotions in a much stronger manner than those without the disorder, and thus are prone to perceiving these emotions as threatening. The theory also posits that those with generalized anxiety disorder may engage in a range of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies that result in them feeling even stronger negative emotions. Thus a cyclical pattern may occur where individuals with generalized anxiety disorder may experience strong negative emotions in relation to an event, worry excessively about the event and its outcomes in order to regulate these emotions, and then experience even stronger negative emotionality as a result of their worry. Take for example an elderly man who experiences strong feelings of sadness following the death of his wife. The man may worry excessively about his ability to cope without his wife, and these worries may then feed into his already vulnerable emotional state. In this example, the bidirectional relationship between strong emotion and worry would be apparent.
Avoidance of worry