Understanding why we worry may help us stop doing it

TU psychologist and professor addresses worrying in the era of COVID-19 and more

By Bethany Pace on April 29, 2020


In addition to the fear for one’s physical health, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to increased awareness about one’s mental health. One of the most common fear-driven behaviors people are experiencing during this unprecedented time is worry. This includes worry about loved ones, worry about how to manage homeschooling, and worry about unemployment to name just a few triggers for this behavior.
With no foreseeable end in sight for the restrictions that have been in place for several weeks, one might ask: Is worry simply an inevitable experience during this time?
The answer is that it doesn’t have to be if we let go of some of our assumptions about worry, according to Towson University psychologist Sandra Llera, an expert who studies worry and underlying factors of anxiety and mood disorders.
“While many of us are intuitively aware that worry makes us anxious and upset, research shows that we still tend to lean on worry when facing problems in our lives. One reason for this is that we may worry as a way to feel emotionally prepared for negative outcomes. However, another reason – which feels particularly relevant now – is that people often conflate worry with problem solving,” says Llera, PhD, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts at TU.
Below, Llera shares additional insight about worry, the myths surrounding it, and alternative ways to cope with worry, whether it’s related to the uncertainty of life during the coronavirus pandemic or daily life after this period of challenge.

TU Newsroom: How can people--some of whom had pre-existing anxiety disorders--manage anxious feelings related to the new and unpredictable circumstances we are navigating during the pandemic? 
Llera: Now is a good time to stay focused on your goals (i.e., keeping yourself and those around you healthy), and to try to think about the situation objectively. This doesn’t mean acting cavalier about it – you owe it to yourself and those around you to take it seriously. But if you find yourself panicking or catastrophizing, just remember – this isn’t the most effective approach to  dealing with your problems, and may end up making you feel worse in the long run.
If your worry is more long-standing and harder to shake off, consider trying some more active coping strategies. There are lots of self-help apps that you can try out in the safety of your own home. These include programs designed to increase mindfulness, enhance relaxation skills, or teach meditation. Even exercise is great at reducing stress.   
TU Newsroom: How are anxiety and worry related?
Llera: Anxiety researchers define worry as a sequence of repetitive thoughts and mental images focused on threatening issues, that have uncertain (but possibly negative) outcomes. To put it another way,  worry is like talking to yourself about something that makes you anxious, and often imagining all the ways it can go wrong. Worry is also accompanied by negative emotion and feelings of arousal, all of which can lead to an increase in anxiety. For many of us, worry is a daily experience even in the best of times, and if you tend to be an anxious person it may feel like your worries have just amplified exponentially.
TU Newsroom: Why do some people have a hard time turning off their worries?
Llera: Despite the fact that worry makes us feel bad, many people have positive beliefs about their worries.

For one, people may believe that worry is a way to keep their (emotional) guard up. Indeed, research shows that if you worry before a negative event, you're less likely to respond to that event with a burst of negative emotion. For example, let's say you're really worried that you may have failed an exam, and when you get the results you see that you did in fact fail. In this case, you may avoid the sudden surge of disappointment you would have felt if you'd been hoping for the best. That's because all that worrying got you into a negative emotional state already - so when the bad thing happened you just kept feeling bad. And people who are naturally high worriers report they actually prefer it that way, because worrying about things helps them feel braced for the worst.

Also, people may believe that worrying about a problem is similar to problem-solving. It's true that when we worry, we're focused on a distressing issue, and trying to figure out how to avoid those worst-case-scenario outcomes. But does it really help us come up with better solutions? Research shows that both of these positive beliefs about worry are myths.    
TU Newsroom: What does the research say about these myths?
Llera: First, while worrying may reduce the immediate emotional impact of a negative event, research shows that unbridled worry can wreak havoc in our lives, leading to relationship problems, impaired work and school performance, and even long-term medical consequences from carrying around all that stress. Furthermore, feeling a need to keep your emotional guard up all the time can make it really hard to simply relax and enjoy a good mood, and makes it tough to stay present-moment focused.   
Regarding the problem-solving myth, in a new study we tested whether people were better at solving a real-life problem if they worried about it, or thought about it in a more objective, less catastrophic manner. We found that people who had worried about their problem generated slightly less effective solutions than did those who had engaged in  objective-thinking. Also, those who worried beforehand still felt worried and anxious after solving the problem. (So rather than feel a sense of relief, they were still worked up over the issue.) On top of that, the more people had worried about their problem beforehand, the less they intended to actually carry out their solution. 

So overall, research shows that our positive beliefs about worry just don't hold up in the long run. 
TU Newsroom: What can we do instead of worry?
Llera: For one, you can try to trust in your ability to handle negative events IF AND WHEN they happen. You'll be much better equipped to deal with it coming from a calm and objective state than if you're already all worked up. You might even be better at solving problems, and more open-minded about trying out your solutions, if you try to refrain from worrying about them. Plus, it will be easier to return to a more pleasant emotional state if you're more used to being there. 
TU Newsroom: What external resources, including knowing when to seek help from a counseling or medical professional, do you recommend for managing anxiety during this time? 
Llera: If worry and anxiety have been a more serious issue for you, don't be afraid to reach out for help. There are lots of mental health professionals standing by to help people dealing with COVID-related anxiety. You might try the Towson University counseling center, or look up some local therapists in your area that might be able to do online counseling.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland.