Everyone worries. You can likely recall the last time you were worrying about something or someone. There are times when worrying may even be helpful, like helping prepare for an upcoming test or job interview. However, when worrying becomes excessive and difficult to control, it can make it hard to function and enjoy life. In fact, when worry becomes chronic, uncontrollable, and starts to affect our daily functioning – for example, by interfering with our performance at work, our relationships, and our sleep, it may be indicative of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Have you ever stopped to think about why people with GAD worry as much as they do? Different explanations suggest that these individuals worry for a variety of reasons.

Worry as an Avoidance Response
One prominent theory suggests that people with GAD worry to avoid thinking about feared situations in a clear way. That is, rather than clearly imagining their worst fears, they tend to think of them in words and questions, for example, “What if I get fired?” When they think of worries in words and statements, they tend to experience less anxiety than if they were to think of them in images. In the short-term, this may make them feel better, but in the long-term, they are unable to confront their fears and end up worrying more.

Worrying in Response to Uncertainty
Another theory proposes that people with GAD worry in response to uncertain situations and are especially sensitive to “not knowing.” When confronted with uncertainty, people with GAD begin to worry about possible catastrophic outcomes. In turn, they will try to eliminate or avoid uncertainty in their lives. For example, people may try to reduce uncertainty by asking other people for a lot of reassurance, or spending a lot of time searching the internet for answers to their questions. At other times, they may avoid problems or uncertain situations altogether so as not to arouse uncertainty. Efforts to control uncertainty alleviate anxiety only temporarily.

Worrying to Feel Prepared
A newer theory suggests that people with GAD would rather feel negatively all the time, rather than “letting their guard down” and being taken by surprise. In other words, individuals would rather worry rather than risk being relaxed and experiencing a sudden change from a positive to negative mood. Thus, according to this theory, worry serves to maintain a negative emotional state so that individuals can avoid an unexpected negative shift in emotion and be emotionally prepared for the worst possible outcome.

Understanding why people worry is important – it has helped researchers develop psychological treatments that target worrying and the unhelpful beliefs and behaviours that keep chronic worrying going. In the next article of the month, some psychological treatments for worry will be described.