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  • Elizabeth McMahon Ph.D.

Anxiety - 5 Signs That Your Worry Is Not Helpful

Learn to spot think thinking associated with maladaptive worry.

Anxiety and Worry
  • Worry can be helpful and adaptive or unhelpful and maladaptive.

  • Unhelpful worry repetitively asks “what if…?”, wants guarantees, and says “this time is different.”

  • Unhelpful worry overestimates danger and underestimates your resilience.

  • Unhelpful worry keeps reacting to past experiences or past lessons that are no longer relevant.

The first post in this blog series, “3 Ways to Tell if Worry Is Helpful”, explained why people worry and covered the “3 A’s of adaptive worry”. This post discusses five ways to spot maladaptive, unhelpful worry.

Worrying can be helpful and adaptive – or unhelpful and maladaptive. Worrying more than you need is stressful. It’s hard on you and often on the people around you.

How can you tell when a worry is excessive? What are hallmarks of maladaptive worrying? Here are five signs of maladaptive worrying.

1. Unhelpful worry keeps saying “What if…?!!”

Maladaptive worry proposes a series of horrifying “What if’s". Vivid, scary pictures of bad things that “might” happen come to mind, even if they are inaccurate or unlikely.

Getting reassurance helps temporarily but worry returns again and again. If one worry is resolved, another takes its place.

2. Unhelpful worry wants total safety and certainty.

Maladaptive worry makes unrealistic, impossible demands. It wants guaranteed safety.

Unhelpful worry says if something frightening is possible, it is likely and you should worry. It confuses lack of absolute certainty with proof of danger.

In reality, life has never offered guaranteed safety. Life offers risks and opportunities.

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3. Unhelpful worry overestimates danger and underestimates your ability to cope and survive.

Maladaptive worry tells you, “Danger is likely, and you won’t be able to cope!” It overestimates how serious the possible dangers are. Even when worries come true, they are often not as bad as the worry predicted.

Unhelpful worry tells you to worry about dangers that do not exist or are so unlikely that worrying makes no sense. I call these “meteor” worries. For example, it is possible that a meteor may crash through the roof as I type these words, but I don’t worry about the possibility because it is so very unlikely.

Unhelpful worry also underestimates your ability to cope. As humans, we are a resilient, coping species. Find reasons to trust yourself. Remember the difficulties you have surmounted and the challenges you have met. Think about your accomplishments, strengths, resources, and problem-solving skills.

4. Unhelpful worry wants you to believe that “This time is different!”

Maladaptive worry has a terrible track record. Most of what it predicts never happens, but it wants you to ignore that. It tells you each new worry is accurate, realistic, and likely.

It always finds something to worry about, shifting from one thing to the next until it finds something that makes you anxious. Once you feel anxious, it is natural to think you are facing a threat.

As discussed in the first blog of the series, your brain’s alarm system (your amygdala or “reacting brain”) can misfire and send false alarms. Just because you are afraid does not mean you are threatened. Test your worry against the “three A’s of adaptive worry.”

5. Unhelpful worry can be triggered from past experience.

You may be more likely to worry if past experiences made you believe you are vulnerable or unable to cope, others cannot be trusted, and/or the world is a dangerous place. The primitive "reacting brain" remembers and worries because of your past – even when there is no danger in your present.

You may remember Jonathan from the first blog in this series. Jonathan constantly worried that his car was going to have a serious problem even though no problems occurred, and his skilled mechanic repeatedly checked and reassured him.

Jonathan’s sense of impending danger and his trouble trusting stemmed from lessons he learned growing up with an alcoholic father. Jonathan never knew when his father would be drunk and angry, so he was always anxiously on guard. This hypervigilance was helpful in childhood but it continued into adulthood, keeping Jonathan unnecessarily worried and tense.

Jonathan grew up hearing his fathers say over and over, “You can’t trust anyone. They’re all incompetent idiots. They take your money and screw you over.” These lessons made it difficult to trust which contributed to his maladaptive worry.

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Worry can serve a useful purpose – or create unneeded stress. Worry can be adaptive – or maladaptive. Maladaptive worry is not accurate or consistent with the facts, it urges you to take actions that are not appropriate, and it stays around or keeps coming back.

Be skeptical if your worry says any of the following or prompts you to think along these lines:

  1. “What if…?” Focus on what could go wrong.

  2. “Are you sure?” You need guaranteed safety and total certainty.

  3. “Danger is likely; you can’t cope.” The likelihood of danger is overestimated; your strength and resilience are underestimated.

  4. “This time is different!” This time worrying is justified. Disregard the fact that past worries were wrong.

  5. “Keep reacting to lessons from the past” Unhelpful reactions from the past continue even when your life has changed.

Elizabeth McMahon, Ph.D. - website - book

References: For more information about coping with anxiety, worry, or panic, read the "Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide."

McMahon, E. (2019). Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide. San Francisco, CA: Hands-on-Guide.


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