Worried Sick

Worried Sick

Recent studies confirm that a "half-empty" outlook is literally bad for your health.

Photo Credit: Jeanine Stewart

We worry. We watch what we eat. We floss our teeth. We work out and walk four miles a day but only after slathering on SPF-60 sunscreen. We practice tai chi, home-brew kombucha, and monitor our cars and skin for strange noises and morphing moles. We watch our children sleep. We stretch. We stare intently into toilets before flushing them.

We do all this because we care about our health, our lives, ourselves. We want to make whatever choices will most likely let us stay with those we love as long as possible. Will folic acid help us do that—or will downward-facing dog?

But how much concern is too much? Where should we draw the line between attention and obsession? A soupçon of worry keeps us safe. But can more than a little bit make us sick?

Worrying Is Worrisome
Recent studies say yes. One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that even very low levels of anxiety and “psychological distress” raise the overall mortality risk by 20 percent and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by a hefty 29 percent. Similarly, a Purdue University-affiliated study found that highly “neurotic” people—characterized by chronic fretting—are much more likely to die prematurely than the easygoing and carefree.

A Harvard University study, hailed as the most thorough of its type to date, found strong links between anxiety and heart health: the sunniest, most optimistic individuals examined in this study were a whopping 50 percent less likely to have heart attacks or strokes than their worrywart counterparts.

Stress Spreads
Another new study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, addressed a specific type of worry now plaguing a recession-wracked world: job insecurity.

According to this study, people who fret about having no job or losing their job have higher rates of anxiety and depression, are significantly more likely to suffer panic attacks, and far more frequently describe themselves as being in worse health than do people without such fears. This research confirms yet again the fact that worry spins a sticky, ever-widening web over our lives.

“A good body of evidence in sociology and social psychology suggests that stress is harmful to physical and mental health,” says this study’s lead researcher, Sarah Burgard, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “To the extent that worries are triggering a stress process, especially if it is chronic, then they could be harmful to well-being, particularly for those who have few resources to cope.”

In other words, the more we worry and the longer we worry, the worse we are for wear.

Bad Habits
Chronic worry gets us stuck in ruts—mental, physical, emotional, behavioral —that are literally sickening. Stresshormones such as cortisol, produced by our adrenal glands, are our bodies’ watchdogs under normal conditions; when allowed to run rampant, these chemicals can cause and intensify insomnia, obesity, eczema, memory loss, heart disease, and other serious health woes.

As for behavior, the Purdue study confirmed what previous studies have revealed: chronic worriers are more likely than nonworriers to engage in dangerous habits such as drinking and smoking. For worriers, such habits can seem to blunt life’s perpetually spinning blades of menace, risk, uncertainty, and dread.

“Excessive negative emotions and stress may lead to poor health behaviors such as smoking or excessive drinking that in turn contribute to worse health,” write the authors of the Purdue study.

Although self-medicating in this way may provide psychological respite, is the damage to one’s physical health worth it?

Don’t Worry, Be Mindful
As Eckhart Tolle explains in The Power of Now, worry yanks us violently out of the present moment and separates us from our own real lives as long as we fret. This is because worry almost always takes one of two forms: fear or regret. Fear is a dire fantasy about an as-yet-imaginary future. Regret imprisons us in an unchangeable, unfixable past.
Worry is the diametric opposite of mindfulness. It is the practice of anti-serenity.

Reminding ourselves throughout the day to stay focused on the present moment—even if it is literally for one moment, although the more moments the better—can reduce anxiety and bring us back into the much more manageable space known as reality.

We can outsmart worry by setting up healthy practices in at least a few chosen aspects of our lives: a highly personalizable regimen ranging from biofeedback to bowling, whole grains to handstands, poetry readings to prayer. Life is random and bad things can always happen, but worry-quelling comfort comes from knowing that at least in these concrete ways, we’re doing our very best.

Three Ways to Curb Worry

1. Be proactive. “Determine whether your worry is productive or unproductive,” suggests North Carolina psychologist Kevin Gyoerkoe, author of 10 Simple Solutions to Worry. “Productive worry is based on threats that are relatively immediate, have a high probability of occurring, and there’s action you can take to prevent or reduce the negative outcome.”

2. Ask yourself the right questions. “If your worry is unproductive, challenge your negative thoughts,” Gyoerkoe suggests. “Ask yourself, How many times have I been right about my worries in the past? What’s the worst-case scenario? How likely is that scenario? What are the costs and benefits of worrying about this? Is there any productive action I can take?”

3. Accept life’s randomness. “Remember: worry is an effort to cope with uncertainty,” Gyoerkoe says. “You can choose to accept uncertainty instead. For example, if you are worrying as you wait for test results to come back from the doctor, you might remind yourself that you don’t know what the outcome will be right now, but that you’ll find out soon and you can deal with whatever the results are then.”

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