How does worry cause illness? Controlled fMRI studies from Harvard and replicated elsewhere, have shown that imagining an event lights up the identical areas of the brain with the same intensity as actually experiencing the event ... and both events produce identical hormones (Ganis et al., 2004). In this way, chronic stress, in which one imagines alarming events, can create disease in a compromised area of the body.

Under chronic stress, which often involves guilt, worry, resentment or anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure rise and stabilize at a higher level, arterial plaque is deposited, substances such as acetylcholine, adrenaline, sugars, fats, thyroxin, cortisol circulate freely, fat is deposited at the waist. 

Whatever is nonessential to combatting stress is turned off or cranked down ... such as the reproductive system, immune system, serotonin levels, tissue repair, the hippocampus (involved with learning and memory), oxycontin (involved with empathy). Finally, telomeres shrink, those disposable buffers of repetitive DNA that protect the end of our chromosomes from deterioration.

Get Worry under Control

Not only is it making us sick, studies show that ‘worrying’ is a costly distraction both in individual psychological cost, and the cost of lost time and productivity to corporations. One recent estimate indicated that around 50% of our time is spent worrying. Worry is psychologically draining, leads to attention being inefficiently divided, and is useless. It doesn’t lead to anything positive.

Telling yourself to stop worrying doesn’t work. In fact, it makes it worse because of psychological reactance. Ordering yourself to do something can set up the opposite result. If you instruct yourself to “just not think about it”, whatever ‘it’ is, will invade your thinking even more. The ‘Zeigarnik Effect’ is a term coined from early observations that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. This finding suggests that incomplete tasks, such as dismissing worry, will intrude until they are completed.

When you encounter your worry, note it on a ‘worry pad.’ Writing it down will help relieve you of it. Get back to work, writing down the worry as often as you need to. Then, at an appointed time, say on your 3:00 p.m. break, take your Worry Pad to a quiet corner and review all your worries, intently worrying about them as hard as you can. Remember, you are just postponing worry, not eliminating it.

What you will find, either quickly or after a few sessions, is that you will be able to release what is on your Worry Pad because you will see the futility of the worries. Alternately, because you are giving worries 100% attention, you just might get to a solution. Either way, it’s a lot more efficient than letting worry drain your attention and energy.