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By Timi Gustafson, R.D.
Among the many capabilities that distinguish us humans from other earthly creatures is the ability to forecast future events and prepare accordingly. Your dog or cat may have an uncanny way of "knowing" when you'll return from work or when it's feeding time, but that doesn't compare with our anticipating of what's to come. However, this unique gift also has a downside: We worry. And sometimes we worry too much.
Worrying is a form of stress that can have multiple negative health effects, especially when there is no reprieve. Constant worriers can turn into emotional wrecks with sometimes serious physical implications.
Potential outcomes are toxic effects from accumulating stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol in the blood stream, which can affect the glands, nervous system, and the heart, and can lead to stomach ulcers, heart disease, and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Other less dangerous, but by no means benign, responses include muscle tension, headaches, back pain, constipation and diarrhea. There can also be a greater susceptibility to infectious diseases as the immune system weakens.
Worrying also impacts our wellbeing in other ways. It can rob us of our peace of mind, disturb our sleep, reduce our libido, isolate us socially, and throw us into depression. Unlike fear, where there are concrete obstacles, excessive worrying can make the whole world appear as a threat, causing anxiety and panic attacks.
Worriers typically get bogged down by events that haven't happened yet but might in a worst case scenario, says Dr. Christine Purdon, a psychology professor and executive director of the Centre for Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. They succumb to what she calls a "worry chain," where one worrying thought spurs another and another, until they no longer can think straight.
What's important is that overly worried people reestablish a sense of perspective. While it is perfectly acceptable to be a little nervous before an exam or a job interview, getting paralyzed with fear over every eventuality is not. There is only so much the mind can bear in terms of apprehension. Beyond that things start spinning out of control.
There are a number of exercises people prone to worrying can do to calm down and regain their confidence, Dr. Purdon suggests. Sometimes it can help just to analyze where a particular concerns originates from. Getting to the root of one's worries can be a first step to overcome them. Asking the right questions, such as "Do I have any control over this particular situation?" or "Have I done everything I can to avert an undesirable outcome?" or "Is this an imminent threat?" can help clarify how justified a particular concern really is.
There are also some hands-on measures worried folks can take to counterbalance the effects of their thinking. Eating extra nutritious foods, engaging in regular exercise, and getting enough sleep are all tried and true anti-stressors. Nothing worse can happen to a person who is under emotional distress than letting his or her body get run down. It is like throwing gasoline on fire.
Not allowing yourself to be isolated is equally important. Seeing a licensed psychologist or health counselor can be helpful, and so can staying close to family and friends. Sometimes just forgetting about one's worries for a while by rejoining the living can take the bleakness away.