Why do people spent so much time worrying? Of course, it makes sense to worry about a potentially dangerous future event. However, people often worry about trivial events or about something that happened a long time ago. All of this worrying seems to do little more than waste time and cause distress. So, why is it so prevalent?
The Nature of Worry:
One study attempted to understand what exactly worry entails. The study recruited participants who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and a control group (who didn’t suffer with anxiety). All participants were asked to worry about a topic that had been bothering them and then subsequently to think about a positive future topic. Every 10 seconds, participants heard a beep. Each time they heard the beep, participants recorded whether their thoughts consisted of words or images. Participants also recorded how long each image remained in their minds. The researchers found that for all participants, images were briefer when worrying about a negative topic (than a positive topic) and that the duration of those images were shorter. Furthermore, the participants suffering from anxiety experienced even fewer images that also lasted for briefer periods of time than the control group.
Why do people worry primarily verbally? Negative images have been found to increase anxiety symptoms to a much greater degree than negative words. So, people worry in images to avoid the negative feelings caused by the negative images. As other researchers put it:
The cognitive avoidance hypothesis suggests that the predominantly verbal nature of worry functions as a means of avoiding potentially distressing imagery. In keeping with this, Butler, Wells, and Dewick (1995) showed participants a distressing video (of an accident at work) and then instructed them to either worry about it or to generate mental images from the video. While verbal worry was associated with a greater decrease in anxiety immediately after worrying about the video, it was also associated with more frequent intrusions of the video over the following three days compared to participants asked to generate imagery. This could suggest that verbal worry may be reinforced by initially reducing anxiety, but at the cost of preventing any longer-term reduction in anxiety and negative intrusions, perhaps due to lack of habituation or corrective learning about the topic.
So worrying in words reduces anxiety in the short-term (which reinforces it), but it maintains or even exacerbates anxiety over time. Let’s think through an example. Let’s say that you are afraid of drowning. If you visualized yourself drowning, you would likely experience symptoms of anxiety. If these negative thoughts continued, your symptoms would continue. However, the negative reaction itself would make it less likely that you’d think about it again. If instead you think in words you might have abstract thoughts like “what would it be like to drown” or “if I drown what will happen to my family” that are likely to cause negative thoughts to continue over time.
Worrying in words can reduce anxiety temporarily, however they will maintain or worsen anxiety over time. So even though it might be painful in the short-term, try worrying in images. It should allow you to overcome the negative thought more quickly and live anxiety free!
Butler, Gillian, Adrian Wells, and Hilary Dewick. “Differential effects of worry and imagery after exposure to a stressful stimulus: A pilot study.” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 23.01 (1995): 45-56.
Hirsch, Colette R., et al. “The extent and nature of imagery during worry and positive thinking in generalized anxiety disorder.” Journal of abnormal psychology 121.1 (2012): 238.
Stokes, Caroline, and Colette R. Hirsch. “Engaging in imagery versus verbal processing of worry: Impact on negative intrusions in high worriers.” Behaviour research and therapy 48.5 (2010): 418-423.