Worry is a chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable. It represents an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain but contains the possibility of one or more negative outcomes. Consequently, worry relates closely to the fear process. (Borkovec, Robinson, Pruzinsky and DePree, 1983)
Human beings have the amazing ability to mentally simulate future events: ‘thinking ahead’ means that we can anticipate obstacles or problems, and affords us the opportunity to plan effective compensatory actions. To the extent that it helps us to achieve our goals, ‘thinking ahead’ can be adaptive. Worrying is one form of thinking about the future. It has been defined as thinking about future events in a way that leaves you feeling anxious or apprehensive.
Clinically, excessive worry is the primary symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Evidence seems to indicate that the content of worry in people with GAD concerns similar topics to ‘everyday’ worry, but that it is often concerned with more unlikely or remote events. The terms ‘hypothetical worry’ and ‘real event worry’ are often used to describe this distinction. Other important differences are that people with GAD often experience their worries as uncontrollable, and will worry habitually instead of in response to particular triggers.
The What Is Worry? information handout succinctly describes worry. It defines worry, draws a distinction between ‘real event’ and ‘hypothetical event’ worry, and describes a continuum of ‘normal’ to ‘excessive’ worry. It also briefly describes the Laval perspective of generalized anxiety disorder in which intolerance of uncertainty is viewed as a prominent feature. It is helpful as both as a client handout and as a therapist primer.
This is a Psychology Tools information handout. Suggested uses include:
- Client handout – a psychoeducation resource.
- Discussion point – to provoke a discussion and explore your client’s beliefs.
- Therapist learning tool – to improve your familiarity with a psychological construct.
- Supervision tool – to develop formulations and knowledge.
- Teaching resource – a learning tool during training.
- Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983). Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(1), 9-16.
- Dugas, M. J., Robichaud, M. (2007). Cognitive behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. Routledge.
- Sibrava, N. J., & Borkovec, T. D. (2006). The cognitive avoidance theory of worry. Worry and its psychological disorders: Theory, assessment and treatment, 239-256.
- Wilkinson A., Meares, K., Freeston, M. (2011). CBT for worry & generalised anxiety disorder. Sage.