I open my eyes with a start, like the murderous freak in the slasher movie the audience thinks is dead but isn't. The clock reads 3:55 A.M. I've awakened within six minutes of this time for the past three nights. I shut my eyes and take a breath, hoping to ease back to sleep. Too late.
The anxiety is already gathering momentum, my brain roiling with thoughts that have no business being there in the middle of the night. It's like a Law & Order episode in my head: Opposing sides argue and counterargue, witnesses are badgered, lawyers shout objections. I bang the gavel and demand silence so I can get some rest. That works for a minute, then the ruckus begins again.
What am I so anxious about? Have my 4-year-old daughters been abducted? No, both girls are snug in their beds. My job is stable, my marriage solid, my family absurdly healthy (knock particleboard night table). But I don't let any of that interfere with my worrying.
Neither do many of my friends and coworkers who, I've noticed, also tend to fret for no apparent reason. We likely possess what psychology researchers call high-trait anxiety, which means that worrying is a natural part of who we are, whether things are going poorly or well. If I happen to be facing a genuine crisis, I can at least take comfort in the fact that my mental state makes sense—it matches my life. When things seem suspiciously placid, on the other hand, I feel not only as if the other shoe is about to drop but that it will land on my head and I'll most likely get a concussion.
I've learned that I can't go around complaining about my baseless worries to just anyone. The last time I mentioned my middle-of-the-night episodes to an acquaintance, she essentially told me to get myself some real problems, then treated me to a litany of her own. Yet anxiety that prevents a person from relishing life even when things are going swimmingly is a genuine problem.
As my friend Rhonda, 41, puts it, "Feeling good is like going up in a roller coaster—you know the drop is coming. It's hard to enjoy being lifted up if you know what's on the other side." The trouble with this kind of thinking, familiar with it as I am, is that girding yourself for the downturn doesn't necessarily soften the landing, not to mention that it makes it tough to take pleasure in the good times. Clearly, this is no way to live, so I decided to find out why people like me can't stop worrying and if it's possible for us to change our ways.
When I start calling experts, they confirm that even happy events, such as a promotion, can be fraught with uncertainty for us. ("Is the company solid?") As for why we agonize, "Worriers hope to gain a feeling of sureness," says Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., author of The Worry Cure (Three Rivers Press). "They want to avoid disappointment or staunch a problem before it gets out of control." This makes sense to me. Before my wedding, I worried about everything, including the weather (which I couldn't control) and friends being mad if we didn't invite them (which I couldn't really control, either).
Anxiety needs no reason
But there needn't be a specific life event like a wedding for worriers to kick it into high gear. The mere fact of things going smoothly can be enough to set the courtroom drama in motion. "People don't worry so much about losing a dollar as they worry about losing $100,000. In other words, when everything is going well in your life, you have more to lose. It's normal to be aware of that and worry about it," Leahy says. What's not normal is when you trip over your worry as soon as you step out of bed and it follows you around all day like a pesky younger sibling, begging to be noticed.
When I'm in a worrying mood, I can fret about nearly anything. Doing so makes me feel as if I'm solving a problem, even if the problem doesn't exist yet. My husband, Paul, frequently points out that I get so worked up about preventing snafus that I forget they're hypothetical; I find myself as twisted up as if they've become full-blown disasters. That's a lot of wasted energy: A study in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that fully 85 percent of the things we worry about never occur.
Still, in a world of drive-by shootings and tsunamis, I'm reluctant to part with my worrying ways. "Could it be that things work out well so often because of what we worrywarts do to prevent our concerns from happening?" I ask Tom Borkovec, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Penn State University at University Park and lead author of the worry study mentioned above. I tell him that recently, when my husband and I were packing for a trip, I had a seemingly irrational flash that our flight was going to be canceled. Feeling neurotic, I called to confirm. Wouldn't you know it? They had no record of our reservation, so I pitched a fit, thereby rectifying the situation. Don't I deserve points for that?
"No," Borkovec says. "There is no positive purpose for worry." Ouch. But what of productive worry, which spurs a person to action the way my airline call helped me head off a travel fiasco? Borkovec points out that I could have called without stressing about it. "The fact that you do useful stuff based on your worry does not mean the worry is necessary."
I tried to think of a trip I'd taken or a story I'd written that didn't involve some degree of worry, worry I'd always credited with helping me get the job done. If I hadn't been so anxious about establishing my career, getting married and having children before my eggs expired, I'm not sure I'd have had the drive to do those things. There's a name for the kind of worry that contributes to a positive outcome: defensive pessimism. "Defensive pessimists think they need to be a bit scared to stay motivated," Borkovec notes. "They use worry as a reminder to work hard and not take anything for granted. But it can be a problem if the worry gets paralyzing." I think of my nightly wake-ups. It's not surprising that these episodes not only take a toll emotionally but can be physiologically harmful, as well.
That's because worriers tend to be in a state of perpetual physical arousal—wired, tense and fatigued. Indeed, one study found that anxious people go to the doctor more often than calmer types, though it's debatable if this is because their worried state is causing physical problems or because they fret that every headache is a brain tumor. I haven't had any brain tumor scares, but my 4 A.M. fretting sessions leave me feeling zombielike, with no energy to do anything except...worry.
The worst part about being a platinum member of the worry club is that, more often than not, when fretters bite their nails, they sometimes create bona fide things to worry about in the process. I've known women in new relationships that are going along happily, who have still felt compelled to constantly seek reassurance from their partner—"Just tell me you want to break up with me now instead of torturing me!" The result? They drive said partner away, resulting in the feared outcome.
"No matter how many times the person answers yes to the question 'Do you love me?' it doesn't do any good. A worrier thinks, Is he only saying that to make me feel better? Or, What if he changes his mind tomorrow?" Leahy explains. "They're so intolerant of uncertainty that they'd rather be sure that something isn't going to work than endure not knowing what is going to happen."
Low self-esteem can also perpetuate the worry cycle, according to Alexander Rich, Ph.D., a consultant at the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Rather than attribute their successes to their lovableness, competence or skills, worriers may say, 'Well, I was lucky that time.' Or 'It's only because I worked 10 times harder than anyone else.' That kind of thinking leaves you feeling inadequate, whatever you accomplish."
Other chronic fretters get anxious for the opposite reason: They assume they have more influence over events than they do. "They believe everything is up to them," Leahy says. If they are throwing a party and notice a guest looking unhappy, they might decide that their fête is a flop, when the reason for the guest's gloom is that she had a fight with her husband beforehand. "If you always think, What did I do wrong? you're probably giving yourself too much credit," Leahy adds.
So what's behind this unnecessary stressing? Surprisingly, though excessive worry is assumed to be the product of an overly emotional way of thinking, research suggests that worrying may be a way for the overwrought brain to decrease emotions. Some experts say that worriers try to strategize and anticipate—cognitive activities that occur in a different brain region from where emotions are processed. Lots of activity in the thinking region may make experiencing feelings—sadness, joy, anything but angst—nearly impossible.
In a study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging scans to examine brain blood-flow patterns in people with generalized anxiety disorder—crippling, exaggerated worry that can interfere with a person's ability to function. The scientists showed people phrases designed to trigger their specific worries ("I don't have money for rent") and neutral ones ("It's a nice day"). The worriers fretted when they heard either type.
"We believe this means that anxious people worry indiscriminately; they don't differentiate between things they should and shouldn't worry about," says Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, M.D., author of the MRI study. "If your brain says that everything is dangerous, you can't accurately weigh what truly is and isn't threatening." And, as Borkovec points out: "This kind of overthinking can be a way to avoid accessing your true emotions."
The problem with this pattern is that "big worriers don't get to learn from experiencing fear, joy or whatever emotion they're subconsciously trying to avoid," Borkovec continues. I believe this. When I'm worrying—say, about gaining back 5 pounds I've lost—it feels as if I'm doing something to keep the weight off. But I'm not, especially if I ease my anxiety with bags of M&M's. In fact, lately I've been too busy worrying to get to the gym and exercise, let alone learn anything. Borkovec says that if I'd let myself feel my emotions instead of worrying them away, I could teach myself to distinguish between what's harmful and what is safe and perhaps discover that I can cope with the dangers I fear (e.g., weight gain), should they come to pass.
"Any big emotion—even a positive one—can trigger worry in otherwise rational thinkers," Borkovec says. "It's as if all emotions become red flags." I have a friend who referred to her newborn as "the zygote" because she couldn't bear to emotionally invest in her as a person. "I didn't buy anything for her until she was, like, 2," she laughs. "It's irrational, but karmically, if you get happy too soon, the gods will smite you."
The fear of jinxing things if you allow yourself joy is part of the very human desire to believe that we are in control of events. "People have a mistaken belief in a just world, which means that if you've had success, you're due for bad times," Rich says. "But bad times are not caused by success."
Breaking the perpetual worry cycle takes separating unproductive fretting from the kind of problem solving that helps everyday life run more smoothly. In my experience, it also takes noticing when my knee-jerk angst has a tendency to bubble up and seeing it as a sign that an emotion or two may be trying to break free. I've lived long enough by now to see that most of my worries have never come to pass. Clearly, life's ratio of anxiety to joy is tipped in my favor. For now, I'm doing my best not to worry about that.