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Chronic Worry in the Past and Present

People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) do a lot of one thing: worrying. One of the most common and widely-accepted ideas about how chronic worrying works is that chronic worriers have a deep and pervasive difficulty tolerating uncertainty. I like the way that the psychologist Dr. David Carbonell talks about GAD on his useful website anxietycoach.com. He says that GAD involves four related processes: 1) arguing with your thoughts, 2) fearing your thought--worrying about the fact that you're worrying so much, 3) getting caught up in constant "What if's" and 4) asking How can I be sure?--that the bad thought (no matter how unlikely it is in the first place) will never become a reality. Effective cognitive behavioral treatment for GAD is very focused on the present. The aim is to help chronic worriers beat worry by changing your response to worry thoughts, i.e. to accept their presence as unhelpful white noise, rather than trying to change, dispute or dispel the thoughts themselves. After all, doing the latter would wind you back up in the same predicament of arguing with thoughts that got a person stuck in chronic worry in the first place.

Outside of treatment, which is best when it's present-oriented, it can be interesting and useful to seek to understand how and why certain people become susceptible to chronic worrying more than others. On this question, some interesting ideas have been put forward by Dr. Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. As you can read more about here, Dr. Leahy says that in addition to a genetic or inherited component, messages that one receives growing up may also play a role. For example, people who were over or under-protected by parents can develop global ideas that (for under or inconsistently protected people) the world is an inherently dangerous, risky place or (for overprotected people) that they themselves are particularly fragile and ill-equipped to handle uncertain situations. Finally, and interestingly, Dr. Leahy states that "reverse parenting," or cases in which the child was forced to play a caretaker role to an under-functioning parent, may also predispose someone to chronic worry. Dr. Robert L. Leahy is also the author of The Worry Cure: 7 Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You.

WorryJay