What are examples of worrying thoughts?


Worrying thoughts are intrusive thoughts or ruminations that cause feelings of anxiety, fear, dread or unease. They are a common symptom of anxiety disorders and can significantly impact daily functioning and quality of life if left unchecked. While everyone experiences some degree of worry in their life, chronic and uncontrollable worrying thoughts are maladaptive and may indicate an underlying mental health issue that requires treatment.

What are examples of worrying thoughts?

Common Types of Worrying Thoughts

There are many examples of thoughts that can turn into excessive and distressing worries if they become persistent and very difficult to control. Some common categories include:

1. Health Worries

  • Fear of having or developing a serious illness like cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.
  • Excessive worrying about normal aches/pains being a sign of disease
  • Intrusive thoughts about death and dying
  • Hypochondriacal tendencies and overpreoccupation with health

2. Safety and Security Worries

  • Fears about being physically harmed or attacked
  • Excessive concerns about home security, locks, alarms, etc.
  • Hypervigilance and fears about accidents or natural disasters
  • Obsessive worries about food safety, medications, chemicals, etc.

3. Relationship Worries

  • Excessive fear of rejection or abandonment by loved ones
  • Intrusive doubts about partner's fidelity or love
  • Constant worries about saying/doing the wrong thing
  • Hypersensitivity to signs of disapproval from others

4. Work and Finances

  • Persistent concerns about job performance and potential mistakes
  • Intrusive thoughts about being fired or demoted
  • Obsessive worries about bills, debt, retirement savings, etc.
  • Preoccupation with minor financial issues

5. Parenting and Family

  • Excessive worries about children's safety and well-being
  • Intrusive "what if" thoughts about bad things happening to loved ones
  • Hypervigilance over family's health and obsessive worries about risks
  • Persistent doubts about parenting abilities

Thought Patterns in Chronic Worriers

For individuals who struggle with chronic worrying and anxiety, their thoughts often follow some common patterns that perpetuate fear and distress. These include:

  • Catastrophizing - Automatically assuming the worst case scenario will happen ("I just know I'll lose my job and end up homeless!")
  • Black-and-white thinking - Viewing situations in extreme, polarized terms with no middle ground ("If I'm not perfect, I'm a total failure.")
  • Fortune-telling - Making predictions about negative future events without considering other outcomes ("I won't get the promotion because my boss doesn't like me.")
  • Mind-reading - Believing you know what others are thinking, usually in a negative way ("My friend didn't call back, she must be mad at me.")
  • Emotional reasoning - Drawing negative conclusions based on feelings instead of facts ("I feel inadequate so I must be incompetent.")
  • Overgeneralization - Taking one negative instance or experience and applying it to all situations ("I was ostracized once, so no one will ever accept me.")
  • Labeling - Using exaggerated negative labels on yourself or others ("I made a mistake, I'm such a loser.")
  • Perfectionism - Holding excessively high standards and being intolerant of any flaws or mistakes ("I should never make any errors. If I do, it's unacceptable.")

Factors Contributing to Excessive Worrying

Both biological and environmental factors are believed to play a role in determining who may be more prone to struggles with uncontrollable worry. Contributing factors can include:

  • Genetics - Family history of anxiety disorders or neurotic personality traits that may predispose someone to chronic worrying.
  • Brain chemistry - Imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA that regulate emotions, mood and anxiety.
  • Stress - Chronic stress and traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, violence, loss, etc.
  • Cognitive biases - Distorted thought patterns reinforced over time.
  • Personality traits - Perfectionism, excessive need for approval/reassurance, avoidance, neuroticism, etc.
  • Medical factors - Certain illnesses, hormonal imbalances, or medications that can increase anxiety as a side effect.
  • Substance abuse - Chronic use of stimulants, alcohol or cannabis that exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

Mental Health Conditions Associated with Worrying Thoughts

If worrying thoughts are occurring frequently and significantly interfering with daily activities, relationships, sleep and well-being, it may indicate an underlying anxiety disorder or other mental health condition. Some examples include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by excessive, uncontrolled worries occurring most days for at least 6 months. Common topics include health, money, family, work, school, current events, safety, relationships, and more. Physical anxiety symptoms like restlessness, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability and sleep problems often accompany the worrying in GAD.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Also known as social phobia, this involves extreme worrying and anxiety around social situations due to fear of embarrassment, judgment or rejection. Intrusive thoughts may fixate on saying/doing the wrong thing, sounding unintelligent, being unattractive to others, or appearing flawed.

Panic Disorder

Recurrent panic attacks are the hallmark of panic disorder. Panic attacks are abrupt episodes of intense physical anxiety symptoms like racing heart, dizziness, shaking, nausea, depersonalization, and fear of losing control or dying. Worrying thoughts may focus on misinterpreting normal bodily sensations as dangerous or catastrophic.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by obsessions - intrusive, unwanted thoughts or mental images that trigger feelings of anxiety and unease. Common obsessions include contamination fears, unwanted taboo thoughts, fears of harming self/others, and more. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors done to alleviate the anxiety caused by obsessions.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

Formerly known as hypochondriasis, this condition involves preoccupation with having or developing a serious undiagnosed medical illness. Worrying thoughts fixate on normal body sensations or minor symptoms as being indicators of physical disease despite lack of actual medical evidence. Reassurance seeking is common.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop after exposure to a traumatic event like combat, assault, disaster, serious accident or death of a loved one. Intrusive worrying thoughts may repeatedly recall aspects of the trauma. Hypervigilance about safety and future catastrophic events also commonly occur in PTSD.

When to Seek Help for Worrying Thoughts

Learning to manage some occasional worrying thoughts is a normal part of life. However, if worrying becomes excessive, uncontrollable, and starts significantly impacting daily functioning or causing distress, it may be time to seek professional mental health support. Signs that worrying thoughts may be pathological and require help include:

  • Worrying excessively most days for at least 6 months
  • Trying repeatedly to control worries unsuccessfully
  • Worrying interfering with work, school, relationships, health, sleep, etc.
  • Avoiding situations due to worrying thoughts
  • Spending excessive time researching, checking, or fixing things related to worries
  • Difficulty concentrating due to intrusive worrying thoughts
  • Using alcohol or drugs to calm constant worries
  • Reassurance seeking, compulsions, or other unproductive coping strategies
  • Feelings of panic, dread, hopelessness, or emotional distress over worries

Professional Treatment for Chronic Worrying

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the gold standard treatment for excessive worrying and anxiety disorders. CBT aims to help identify and alter the destructive thought patterns, behaviors and core beliefs that maintain the worrying cycle. Treatment techniques can include:

  • Cognitive restructuring - Challenging worrisome thinking patterns and shifting to more balanced, realistic thoughts.
  • Exposure therapy - Gradually and systematically facing feared situations to overcome avoidance and anxiety.
  • Worry exposure - Intentionally worrying for a set time to become more comfortable with uncertainty.
  • Relaxation training - Learning controlled breathing, meditation, imagery, and muscle relaxation to calm the body and mind.
  • Mindfulness - Practicing present moment focus and acceptance to short-circuit worry and rumination.

Medications may also be prescribed in adjunct to therapy, especially SSRIs or other antidepressants that can help regulate brain chemistry contributing to chronic anxiety. Lifestyle changes like regular exercise, sufficient sleep, reduced alcohol intake and a healthy diet can also support recovery.

For worrying thoughts that significantly hinder normal functioning, seeking guidance from a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor is advised. With professional support and consistent practice of coping skills, individuals struggling with excessive worrying can find relief.

Healthy Coping Strategies for Worrying Thoughts

Along with professional treatment, there are many beneficial coping techniques that can help manage worrying thoughts before they spiral out of control:

  • Thought-stopping - Visualize a stop sign and consciously say "stop" when worries arise. Refocus on present.
  • Positive self-talk - Counter anxious thoughts with encouraging statements like "This is survivable" or "I can handle this."
  • Progressive muscle relaxation - Systematically tensing and releasing muscle groups to induce physical calm.
  • Breathing exercises - Slow, deep belly breathing to lower heart rate and relax the body.
  • Distraction - Diverting focus to more positive thoughts or external activities like a hobby, chores or reading.
  • Mindfulness meditation - Observe worrying thoughts non-judgmentally without reacting or believing them.
  • Worry time-limiting - Only allow yourself to worry during a scheduled 15-30 minute time period per day.
  • Exercise - Engage in regular cardio like walking, jogging or swimming to reduce anxiety and worries.
  • Gratitude journal - Write down things you are thankful for to cultivate present moment appreciation.
  • Talk it out - Verbalize worries to a trusted friend or therapist to gain more perspective.
  • Self-care - Make sure your basic needs are met with proper nutrition, sleep, hygiene, social contact, etc.

When to Seek Emergency Help

In some cases worrying can escalate to feelings of suicidal ideation or self-harm. If at any time worries or anxiety reach an intensity that make you feel actively suicidal or at risk of hurting yourself or others, seek immediate emergency assistance from 911, a hospital emergency room, or a mental health crisis hotline. Do not wait to get professional emergency support. With help, the distress will pass and recovery is absolutely possible.

What are examples of worrying thoughts? Conclusion

In summary, worrying thoughts are very common but can start to negatively impact functioning and well-being when they become uncontrollable, distressing and persistent. Examples of worrying thoughts often revolve around themes of health, safety, finances, work, relationships and responsibilities. Cognitive distortions perpetuate the cycle of anxiety. If worrying is interfering with life, support is available through therapeutic techniques like CBT, medication, and healthy self-care habits. With professional guidance and consistent practice of coping skills, worrying thoughts can be managed successfully.

Resources used to write this article

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2022). Facts & Statistics. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427–440. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Anxiety Disorders. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders

Newman, M. G., Llera, S. J., Erickson, T. M., Przeworski, A., & Castonguay, L. G. (2013). Worry and generalized anxiety disorder: a review and theoretical synthesis of evidence on nature, etiology, mechanisms, and treatment. Annual review of clinical psychology, 9, 275–297. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185544

Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress. (2022). https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-anxiety-difference

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