But fretting constantly over unlikely problems is not healthy.
Severe worry is a severe problem. Called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the illness is characterized by six months or more of chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“People with this disorder usually expect the worst; they worry excessively about money, health, family or work, even when there are no signs of trouble,” the NIMH reports. “They are unable to relax and often suffer from insomnia. Many people with GAD also have physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, irritability or hot flashes.”
About 2.8 percent of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 – about four million Americans – has GAD during the course of a given year. GAD most often strikes people in childhood or adolescence, but can begin in adulthood, too.
People who are anxious tend to overestimate the extent of the threat that worries them. John Hart, a licensed clinical professional counselor trained in the application of psychotherapy techniques, said his treatment might begin with showing a patient a more realistic outcome. A patient fearful a loved one will die in an accident, for example, might lead Mr. Hart to suggest that dying in an automobile crash is a relatively rare event, an observation that establishes a more realistic baseline from which he could launch his therapy in a clear direction.
Additionally, he said he might explore the ramifications of a potential death. How would it affect the patient? What steps would the patient take in light of such a death? Outlining all the worries in a therapeutic approach called cognitive behavior therapy lessens their grip.
“If you’re prepared to solve the problem, you’re less anxious about it. The patient can solve a problem that doesn’t exist yet,” Mr. Hart said.
For people who worry but do not require clinical treatment, there is hope, too. You can keep worry under control and make it work for you by working through the worry. Here are three ways to accomplish that:
Write about it.
Jot down every possible scenario. Then rank them in order of likelihood and discard the bottom third. Plan how you would handle the rest. Thinking through a problem this way gives you perspective.
Work it out.
Doing something physical helps release tension. A vigorous housecleaning or a long walk can take the edge off. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment, beneficial exercise and help you feel up to handling the problem.
Talk it through.
Talking about your worries can help you discover their causes. You may also learn that others have the same fears and concerns.