Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Worrying Can Be Hazardous to You and Your Relationship

If you are human, you know about worry.  Worry is the state of negative thinking we engage in when we are faced with a real or anticipated threat. It’s the “thinking” component of the physical heart racing and sweaty palms that make up anxiety:  “What if I get laid off?”, “Why did he say he was just too tired to make love?”, “How will I tell my wife I want the transfer?”, “ What if I miss my plane?”

Whereas a certain degree of worry can cause us to problem solve, ask for help, change behavior patterns, even enhance our attention to partners, excessive worry burdens us personally and interpersonally. In his book, Worry , psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, suggests that as compared to  “good worry” that leads to constructive action, “ toxic worry” can paralyze us.

What Causes Excessive Worry?file000717272965

Persistent and excessive worry, also called rumination, may have a number of causes.  Some of these include:

Self Perception

  • A negative view of self can fuel anxiety and continual worry. Low self-esteem generates an undue focus on the “ what ifs” in life with a negative expectation of failed coping. The inability to believe that you will find another job, that your partner loves you or that you can adapt your travel plan is more central to the excessive worry than the particular issue you are worried about.
  • An inflated or perfectionistic view of self can also be a crippling component in worrying. An inability to tolerate anything less than perfect in self or others can make daily life frightening to navigate.  “I have to be promoted.”  “I can’t go to a local college.”  “I can’t ask for help on the project.”


All trauma involves an assault on the assumptions that life is predictable, the world is safe and people are just.  Once the unthinkable has happened, the body and mind are poised for danger.  This could be a result of chronic childhood trauma, combat trauma or adult trauma:

“If a plane could kill my brother on the 90th floor of the Twin Towers –- why wouldn’t my child be kidnapped?”

As such the neuropsychological trigger for alarm and worry is very easily tripped and difficult to turn off.

Misguided Strategy

One of the misconceptions about excessive worry is that it accomplishes something positive:

“I want to be ready when the other shoe drops.”

What we know about rumination as a strategy for regulating emotion is that it is not only ineffective but highly correlated with anxiety and despair.  Spending days anxiously anticipating “the worst” debilitates rather than prepares for what may or may not happen.

What is The Impact of Excessive Worrying?

Personally, excessive worrying is emotionally and physically costly.

  • Emotionally it sets in motion a vicious cycle of poor problem solving, increased vulnerability, anxiety, despair, fear of not coping and the need for more worry. The secondary cost is the self-conscious “worry about worrying.”
  • Physically there is evidence that excessive worry sets in motion our bodies’ fight or flight response which, when persistent and prolonged, results in the release of stress hormones, sleeping difficulties and a compromised immune system, among other things. The physical impact serves again to deplete a sense of mastery or confidence in the face of real or imagined threat and increases excessive worry.

Interpersonally, excessive worrying is complicated.

It’s difficult to be intimately involved with someone who is worrying without having a reaction to it. If the worry is occasional it can be instructive, supportive, even helpful to a partner. When it becomes excessive it often trips the following reactions:

  • Some partners resent the continual voice of worry: “You put a shadow on everything we do.”

Because worry can be contagious, some partners also become anxious, exacerbating the worries and fears.

Others defend against the anxiety being stirred with anger or criticism: “If I let him know that I am nervous, he gets angry.”

  • Some partners stop telling the worrier about what is happening in their life to keep him/her from worrying. This does little to help: “I assume the worst because he won’t let me know what’s happening.”

Perhaps the greatest cost of excessive worrying for anyone is that it deprives them of  the ability to live “in the moments”  of their own life and in the life they share with their partner.

Listen in to a Podcast on Psych Up Live with Bruce Van Horn on Worry No More:4 Steps to Stop Worrying and Start Living