We all worry from time to time. Worrying gets activated when we are not certain how a situation is going to turn out, especially when there is potential for things not to turn out well. Worry has been described as a type of self-talk that is full of “what if” questions and thoughts about the “worst case scenario.” There are times when worrying can be helpful – for example, when it helps us work through potential solutions to a problem or when it propels us into action. But when worrying is chronic, is triggered by routine, everyday problems, is focused on problems that do not actually exist in the moment, and is difficult to bring under control, it can be distressing and paralyzing.
Many people who experience chronic worry describe feeling overwhelmed and out of control when they are caught in a cycle of worry and anxiety. Some people describe their worry as “all consuming.” Research is beginning to suggest that this is because worrying consumes the same mental resources that we use when we are trying to do things that require a lot of focused attention, like planning, problem-solving, making sense of new information, and regulating our emotions (for example, stress). Put differently, worrying “competes” for and drains limited mental resources that we need to accomplish day-to-day tasks. So when someone starts worrying, this “competition” makes it hard to shift away from worry and concentrate on tasks at work or at school that need immediate attention. When people are worrying and also trying to do other things, this can make them feel like they are running low on “fuel.”
In a study conducted at Ryerson University in Toronto, lead researcher Kathleen Tallon and her co-investigators recruited individuals reporting a tendency to engage in chronic, impairing worry. These individuals completed questionnaires that assess features that typically coincide with excessive worrying. Participants also completed a computer task that measures working memory capacity, a mental resource involved in a large range of mental activities like reasoning, decision-making, multi-tasking, and even worrying. People vary in their working memory capacity – some people have more of it, and some people have less. The results showed that worriers who were lower in working memory capacity also reported in their questionnaires having greater problems with attention (for example, difficulty blocking out distracting thoughts, difficulty concentrating), having a harder time tolerating uncertainty, and having more difficulty managing uncomfortable emotions. The results of this study point to a potentially important role of working memory capacity in the tendency to worry. The research group at Ryerson is currently investigating ways to “train” working memory and looking at the degree to which such training may have potential as an intervention for people who chronically worry.