I'm a Doctor and Here's What Worrying Every Day Does To Your Body
Worry, Worry, Worry.
What if I'm late, what if I don't take my vitamins, what if my partner is cheating on me, what if I catch the virus, what if the candidate I hate wins. Words and random thoughts matter, and a constant barrage of What Ifs is a sure-fire path to crippling stress, anxiety, irritability, exhaustion and depression.
In fact, studies show that chronic worriers have shorter lifespans due to health problems such as higher blood pressure, stomach ulcers, cardiovascular disease, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Some of us are born worriers (sneaky 'worry' genes), some of us grow up in families that train their kids to worry (albeit with the best intentions), and some of us are triggered by tabloid headlines and social media posts warning about disasters around every bend (with self-serving, commercial interests). So what is a modern human to do? Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
Worrying Activates Your Emergency Response System
When you indulge in a worry, your brain signals the rest of your body about a potential threat, so it preps for a fight-or-flight response. It's a primitive signaling system that hasn't evolved much the past millennia. When tripped, the brain sends cortisol (a stress hormone) coursing through your veins: you breathe faster, your thoughts speed up, your hands can sweat and tremble, and your chest may tighten up. Your brain and body do not know if the threat is a nothing-burger or potentially cataclysmic.
If a mini-worry grows uncontrolled or joins up with a gang of like-minded worries, it can activate a full-scale alarm in your body and you're in for a wild ride. It's the same basic signaling system that in the extreme version triggers anxiety and panic attacks.
10+ Ways Chronic Worry Can Cause Damage
When triggered, the threat-signaling system in your brain initiates a cascade of biological reactions that push your body from a balanced resting state into a heightened state of alertness and preparedness. It's like it's the fourth down in the last quarter of a football game with only a few seconds left on the clock and the only way you can win is if you pass 50-yards for a touch-down. But, instead of the suspense ending after a few seconds, this Hail Mary state-of-mind lasts for days, weeks, and months. And to pour fuel on the worry, this is not a game, your life depends on it!
Let me be frank and state the obvious: a hypervigilant state of alertness without solid time-outs over time will break your system. Research and clinical experience have shown that problems such as disrupted sleep, headaches, problems concentrating, remembering, making difficult decisions, nausea and digestive issues, muscle tension, exhaustion, irritability, skin and hair damage, fertility issues, lower libido, and heart problems can often be traced back to elevated levels of the stress hormone that comes from chronic worrying. So, don't ignore it, do something about it!
First Line of Defense
The first line of defense for a worry (or your tendency to worry) is gaining an awareness of what is happening to your mind and body; then, apply a strategy to defuse the activation by channeling the energy behind it somewhere else. Like when you feel a sneeze building when you're on a date. If you sense an oncoming impulse to sneeze, you can react by putting your nose in your elbow so you don't spray the gook all over the person you are trying to impress.
However, adopting effective strategies to deal with the worry and train your brain to deal with it requires thought and practice. Tabloid headlines and social media conspiracies are a classic source of worry. Yes, they grab your attention, pique your curiosity, and then you worry.
Once you are aware of the danger of these sources of worry, you can choose to avoid them, reduce your consumption of them, or just learn to take them at face value and prevent yourself from becoming emotionally activated by the content. In general, ask yourself the following question when faced with a potential worry: Does thinking about this add any value to my life? If the answer is no, then send it over to the trash bin in your brain with other worthless thoughts. No use going down that rabbit hole if it's just something that will lessen your quality of life and in the long term even shorten your life.
Short-Term Strategies For Worry-Relief
So you've tried the first line of defense, but it turns out that the worry is still plastered to your mind's eye, making you increasingly uneasy. You determine that the worry is relevant to you, it is within your control to do something about it, but your anxiety level is still spiking. Well, there are a variety of short-term strategies for relief from unavoidable worry.
The quickest one is to focus on your breathing. Start taking deep breaths in through your nose counting to at least four or five and feel your stomach and chest filling deeply with air; then exhale slowly from your mouth counting a bit longer to six or seven, and feel your stomach and chest empty completely of air. Try to bring some mindful focus to any of your sensory modalities (smells, sounds, touch sensations). As you breathe in through your nose, see if you can identify any scents that you might be registering to get your thoughts onto something concrete, like the perfume or cologne worn by the person sitting next to you on the bus.
You can also do some muscle relaxation exercises where you tighten and then relax muscle groups starting with your toes and then moving up your body to your ears and forehead. Feel the tension building in each muscle group as you tense, then feel the relief as you relax. You can also take a short vacation to your favorite place on earth by closing your eyes, and then picturing yourself, for example, warmed by a cozy campfire, soothed by the sight of the orange flame, listening to the wood crackling, and taking in the scent of burning birchwood. And if you are home or with friends at the office, you can ask for a hug (maybe wait with this one until after the all-clear from the pandemic). Any act engaging your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations should do the trick.
Long-Term Strategies For Worry-Relief
In my clinical experience, people who have good daily routines are more robust and better equipped to self-regulate worry-habits than those who are off-balance in their everyday lives. Eating a balanced diet (avoiding high-fat, high-sugar foods, refined carbs like cookies and potato chips) on a daily basis will provide a better physical bulwark against the dangers of chronic worrying.
In addition, remember to set aside specific slots of time in your weekly schedule for exercise, leisure activities, fresh air, and fun. Think through your daily schedule and make changes to it if it doesn't facilitate your mind and body is in a balanced state. If you make the changes and keep to them, then they'll become automatic and will not become just another cause for worry.
What to Do If You Are a Seriously Chronic Worrier
Neurotics are people who are in a constant state of worry. They have a unique ability to find danger and threats in every nook and cranny of their lives. These individuals are often tremendously accomplished educationally and occupationally, but it can be a challenge to be together with a person with this type of personality trait because they are always hyper-alert to the smallest threat.
Their constant state of heightened worry can lead them to be moody and suffer from feelings of fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness. And even though they may keep these thoughts and feelings inside for long periods of time, words and behavior will likely leek out from them from time to time and cause havoc to their surroundings. In the extreme, this condition is classed as a mental disorder and is treatable with professional care.
How to Deal With Holiday Worries
Because of the ongoing pandemic, the upcoming holidays are a source of worry for many. Parents worry about the family traditions they won't be able to practice, kids struggle to cope with the fear that the world is no longer a safe place for them, couples worry that their relationship is under strain because of isolation, and students and single people worry about an unforeseeable future with personal contact restricted to VR or LED screens. So, take control of the holidays and start planning today.
The worst strategy is to wait until the day arrives, and then realize that you have nothing to fill that traditionally festive time with. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, and connecting with friends and other activities distanced appropriately and wearing a mask. Plan your menus, and specify who will make the meals and who will clean up afterward. This is also your chance to be 'a bit crazy' and think up some new traditions, like organizing a digital game night or dance night, a scavenger hunt (indoor or outdoor) or take a midnight walk star gazing (challenge your son or daughter to a World of Warcraft session and be as goofy as you can possibly be). Plan healthy snacks and drinks for this new future, and make one healthy change in your life that is good for you and the environment. Think about how to set aside differences, grievances, and pet peeves and make a contest out of it. Make silly drawings or cut up photos from years gone by and make something people can hang on the refrigerator to remember loved ones by this Xmas (ditch the expensive gifts).
Final Word From the Doctor
But be realistic. Have plans A, B, and C for all eventualities. That way you won't be devastated if new restrictions on movement and visitors are mandated, or people get sick and need to be in quarantine. No need to cultivate stress or worry, it's time to bubble positivity. With good planning and a flexible attitude, you can help make the upcoming holiday celebrations a good experience for you and everyone around you. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
About Author: Kjell Tore Hovik, PsyD, Ph.D., is a specialist in clinical neuropsychology and co-author of When Crisis Strikes: 5 Steps to Healing Your Brain, Body and Life from Chronic Stress. Citadel Press.