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I'm a little anxious about admitting this, but here goes: I'm a world-class worrier. Everything from cellulite to salmonella has me in a sweat. If family or friends are flying, I can't relax until the plane lands. The waiting room in a doctor's office? Anxiety Central. And don't even get me started on the economy. I worry I'll lose my job, or my husband will lose his, and our depleted 401(k) gives me nightmares.
There's a psychological label for this kind of constant fretting: generalized anxiety disorder. Women are diagnosed with it more often than men, says psychologist Thomas Borkovec, PhD, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a leading authority in the field. "People with GAD spend anywhere from five percent of their time to more than half the day working out solutions to problems that may or may not exist," he says. That's me!
But even though my level of worry sometimes borders on the pathological, I am definitely not alone. "I sometimes joke that the disorder is misnamed," Dr. Borkovec says. "It should be called severe normality, because we all experience it sometime or other."
Not only am I not unique, I'm part of a stressed-out sisterhood. As women, we're more likely than men to worry that something bad that happened in the past might happen again in the future, according to a 2007 study led by psychologist Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, at the University of California, Davis. That's me, for sure. I remember getting lost in the pitch-dark while driving to a friend's house and becoming frantic as I went miles out of the way. Now I'm nervous each time we make plans to meet at her home. I know the route well at this point, yet I still take anxiety along for the ride.
Women do report higher levels of worry than men, Dr. Borkovec says -- though it could just be that the guys aren't admitting it. "We take these gender differences with a grain of salt because women tend to be more honest in expressing their feelings than men are." Meanwhile, it turns out that some of us are born with an inclination to wring our hands. A 2007 Yale University study identified a gene mutation that can predict a tendency to ruminate. It was instantly dubbed "the worry gene."
There is an upside to all this angst, however. Think about it: Without a certain amount of hand-wringing about your health, would you really make your annual appointment for a mammogram, or go to the gym, or wear a seat belt? "Good worry is like a smoke detector that nature has built into our brains," explains psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition. "It alerts us to danger. It also helps you solve problems." If you're worried about bouncing checks, you'll be more likely to set up a cash reserve.
We're actually wired for "good worry" thanks to a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which helps us predict, and thus avoid, danger. So, when you're about to buy an entire case of warehouse-store cookies because they're on sale and that little voice inside your head says, Don't do it, you'll just eat them all, it's probably a good idea to listen.
But while good worry has its benefits, fretting over future problems -- your husband's car might crash, your child might get seriously ill -- is most often a complete waste of energy. Eighty-five percent of the time people's worst fears never materialize, according to a study published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
Meanwhile, no one needs to tell nervous Nellies like me that anxiety can be incredibly destructive. Common among worriers: restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, high blood pressure, stomach problems, rashes, heart disease, headaches, and insomnia. "It takes practice and patience to change worry patterns," points out psychologist Robert Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure. "But it ultimately boils down to readjusting how you think about the world, and believing that tomorrow is more likely to bring you something wonderful than something frightening." How to put worry behind you? Don't angst over it! If one strategy doesn't work, simply try another.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.