Do you sometimes feel as if you’re addicted to worrying?
If so, you may hate that you worry so much, because it limits your life and feels so painful. Yet another part of you may also feel like the constant worrying is strangely necessary, or even helpful. How confusing!
When Worrying Feels Good – and Bad
If you’re like many people, you might feel like there’s something strangely compelling about worrying. So that even though you hate being constantly anxious and worried, it might be hard to imagine living without the ongoing sense of stress and brain-whirl of ‘what-if’ thoughts.
You might almost feel as if worrying functions as a parachute strapped to your back, ready to be used in the case of emergency (and for the chronic worrier, there’s usually an ongoing rumbling feeling that an emergency is probably just around the corner).
Perhaps you experience a hint of a hollow, fearful shudder when you try to imagine going through your days without engaging in compulsive worrying. And yet you’d love to escape from this endless anxiety-treadmill that you seem to be locked onto.
How can we understand this? And how can you release yourself from the shackles of the constant worrying? Well, it starts with your brain’s inbuilt ‘fight-or-flight’ emergency system.
Addicted to Worrying: Stuck in Fight-or-Flight
The ‘fight-or-flight’ response is part of the body’s survival method. It happens automatically when a person (or animal) finds themselves in a threatening situation. (There’s actually more to it than those two options; other crisis responses include ‘freeze’, ‘flop/collapse’, ‘tend and befriend’, and ‘fawn’. But for now, we’re just going to think about the basics).
Everybody needs access to their fight-or-flight response at times. It can literally be life-saving. It’s designed to be very temporary – to last just long enough to see you through the danger with minimal damage. However, if you’re someone who feels addicted to worrying, your nervous system is likely stuck in this physiological state in a chronic and ongoing way.
There could be various reasons for this. It could have started through trauma experiences, particularly relational trauma or attachment disturbances in early life. Or there could be some other explanation.
Getting Curious About Your Worrying
You might start by allowing yourself to get curious about what’s going on behind the obvious symptom (i.e. the constant worrying). If getting curious makes you feel worse (as it might at first, by bringing up thoughts and feelings you’d been suppressing for a long time), you then have three choices:
- Feel the feelings, even if that’s hard at first, making sure to use big doses of self-compassion as you go; AND/OR
- Find a good therapist to work with (see below); OR
- Stop thinking about it, and continue to put up with the constant worrying.
Which of those you choose is up to you. There are situations in which any one of those would be appropriate.
If you want to investigate your chronic worrying, with or without the support of a therapist, here are some questions to ask yourself, to start you off.
Questions to Ask Yourself About Feeling Addicted to Worrying
Does Worrying Help You in Any Way?
With most psychological/ behavioural symptoms, there are gains as well as difficulties. Occasionally the gains are obvious, but most often it’s almost impossible to see how there could possibly be any benefit in having the problem. It can be very helpful to understand the ‘pro-symptom position’* in excessive worrying. Some of the questions below could help you tease out any hidden benefits or logic behind your anxious thinking style. Working with a therapist, particularly one who values working with the unconscious, can be another good way of getting to grips with what’s been going on.
Were You the Worried Kid at School?
Were you an anxious child? How did teachers, parents, siblings and the other kids treat you? How did it feel to be the kid who was always nervous and concerned (if you were)? Were you babied and treated as special for being the most fearful? Were you treated harshly and not allowed to develop confidence at your natural pace? Or were you kindly supported and caringly encouraged to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’?
Did Your Mum or Dad Worry a Lot?
Children need their parents to recognise and relate to them, and for many parents that’s easier to do if their child happens to have a similar temperament to themselves. If your parent’s emotional world was coloured by anxiety and constant worry, any other emotional state (in themselves or others) may have felt unreal and unrecognisable to them. Children of worriers often learn to align themselves with their parent by sharing in the parent’s emotional world. Perhaps worrying helped you feel close and connected to your anxious parent.
Is Worrying Saving You From Regret?
For many people, worrying keeps them stuck in a state of immobility. Worrying about which thing to do, or how to do it, prevents you from taking action. In taking action, there’s always a risk that you might do something you’ll later regret. Yet regret is a normal and expectable part of life. If you feel like you absolutely can’t bear to experience feeling regret, and you avoid anything that could possibly lead to it, your life will steadily become more and more limited and constrained. Therapy could be very useful, so you can get help with learning to tolerate, process and manage the mixed feelings associated with the regret, such as sadness, guilt, shame and anger.
Do You Feel Disconnected?
Any addiction is an attempt to soothe a sense of disconnection, says Dr. Gabor Maté. This disconnection could be a current feeling, and it may well have its roots in your early life (or even in intergenerational family trauma from before you were born). Feeling addicted to worrying is different from having an addiction to a substance; but there are things they have in common, and a sense of emotional disconnection could be one of those.
Does Worrying Help You Avoid More Challenging Issues?
Very often, when we worry about something, it functions to occupy and divert our mind to stop us being aware of something more problematic. For example, worrying about what meals to serve when your in-laws come for the weekend might distract you from thinking about how angry and hurt you feel when they criticise your parenting style. A preoccupation with skin blemishes or weight might serve to enable you to temporarily ignore more challenging problems like a fundamental incompatibility with your partner, an assault you’ve suffered, social injustice, or climate breakdown.
Is Worrying a Kind of Magic for You?
Some people have a feeling, or semiconscious belief, that as long as they keep worrying, they are somehow magically protecting themselves and their loved ones from harm. This can even morph into OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). In its milder forms, perhaps it’s similar to what Brene Brown calls ‘foreboding joy’. It can cause a lot of distress and minimise many of life’s pleasures, so it’s well worth working to overcome this to some extent, if you can. Therapy could be helpful, and self-help can also work well for some people.
Do You Use Worrying as a Motivator?
Maybe you worry a lot about something, and procrastinate because you’re avoiding attending to the thing you’re worrying about. Then, when it’s almost too late, you suddenly rush into action and make the decision/ do the previously avoided task/ write the required report/ rush to the station or airport, just in the nick of time. You use the build-up of anxiety to get motivated and energised enough to take action. It can feel exhilarating, but there are many downsides to this approach, including health issues down the line as the body gets physiologically stressed (e.g. adrenal fatigue). It can also lead to burnout.
Could There Be a Hormonal Component?
Perhaps your body is so used to feeling on edge, that it automatically triggers worrying thoughts regularly in order to get a ‘fix’ of stress hormones. Or maybe there’s another hormonal imbalance associated with the worrying, such as menopause (or other menstrual-related syndrome), or thyroid issues. You might want to ask your doctor if blood tests could check for a hormonal cause.
Could Worrying Be a Symptom of Bipolar Disorder?
Most likely you don’t have Bipolar, but it might be worth considering, especially if you have other symptoms. For some people, the manic phases of Bipolar disorder may include excessive worrying. For others, the worrying may descend when you’re deeply depressed. Check with your doctor if you’re concerned.
What Else Comes to Mind About Feeling Addicted to Worrying ?
Do any other ideas, feelings, images or metaphors come to mind when you consider your apparent addiction to worrying? Try to be willing to listen to them. You might find that things start to shift just because you’re changing to a more curious, interested, mindful stance.
What Kind of Therapy Could Help?
If you’re keen to move on and into a new relationship with your anxiety, consider working with a therapist.
- For some insights and strategies, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) might be helpful (self-help books can be good for this too).
- If you’re looking for a sounding board, someone to really listen to you and enable you to listen to yourself in new ways, maybe try Person-Centred (aka Rogerian) counselling.
- And if you’re looking for all those things plus more (particularly if the worrying seems to have been there for your whole life, or if it started after you suffered a traumatic event) you may like to work with an Integrative Arts Psychotherapist, AEDP therapist, Gestalt therapist, psychodynamic therapist, IFS therapist, trauma therapist, or a Body Psychotherapist (or, indeed, a therapist from another modality).
I work with sensitive, thoughtful worriers from all over the UK and further afield, in online therapy. You can read more about my approach here.
What Helps YOU When You Feel Addicted to Worrying?
Have you ever felt addicted to worrying? In the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience about what it’s been like for you.
*The ‘pro-symptom position’ is a term borrowed from Coherence Therapy (Ecker & Hulley)