An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

The Effects of Worrying on Young Adult Mental Health

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Today’s young adults face an unprecedented degree of fear and uncertainty as they launch their lives. Globally, there’s the fear of viral contagion, economic insecurity, social disruption, and climate change. Individually, they face financial worries, disrupted plans, and personal losses, both large and small. At the same time, the pandemic has reduced opportunities for day-to-day outlets for releasing worry, such as social connection, engagement with school or work, and physical exercise. 

What are the effects of worrying on mental health over time? What happens when we worry too much? Should young adults add worrying too much to their list of things to worry about?

The Difference Between Worry and Anxiety

Worry and anxiety are often thought of as two words for the same thing. A recent survey found that one-third of parents of teens and young adults think the two terms are interchangeable. That is true to some extent—both refer to fearful uncertainty about something in the future. But worrying typically happens in relation to a specific situation: ”What if I get Covid?” “What if I can’t get a job?”

A worry typically ends once the problem is solved, while anxiety exists as pervasive, persistent symptoms even without a specific cause. However, when worrying turns into a loop of repetitive negative thinking, it can trigger anxiety, including the physical effects of worrying on the body, such as a sense of dread, a racing heartbeat, and headaches or stomachaches. 

Some people’s physiology sets them up for worrying more than other people. In fact, a recent study determined that early childhood temperament was a reliable predictor of who would experience extreme worry about COVID as an adolescent. Children with a tendency toward “behavior inhibition” (an extreme wariness of novelty and apprehension of potential threat) often continue being ultra-sensitive to their environment as young adults. As a result, they may develop anxiety disorders such as social anxiety, agoraphobia, or panic disorders. 

How Worrying Affects the Body

Worrying, in essence, is the anticipation of a future threat. Hence, it activates the same fight-or-flight response as the body would muster for an in-the-moment threat. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the stress response, charges the body with energy for taking defensive action. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, and our respiratory rate goes up in order to increase available oxygen. 

In the face of an immediate threat, this energy would be channeled into action. But when we’re worrying about the future, there’s no built-in release. We’re stuck in the stress response. Moreover, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, it simultaneously disengages the “rest-and-digest” functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s harder to sleep, the digestive system doesn’t work as well, and executive functioning skills, such as problem-solving, planning, and evaluating risk, become more difficult to access. 

A continual focus on future peril can make it hard to relax and enjoy what’s going well in the present. Chronic inflammation associated with the stress response can also lead to a host of serious physical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems. In addition, the effects of worrying can interfere with interpersonal relationships and cause the worrier to avoid taking risks altogether, even when well-considered risks could enhance their life.

4 Myths About Worrying

Here are four myths about the effects of worrying on how we think and behave.

Worrying helps solve problems.

Actually, research shows that for many of us, worrying about a problem leads not only to less effective solutions, but also decreases the odds that we’ll take the action needed to solve the problem. Why? As described above, even an imagined threat activates the body’s defense mechanisms. That reduces blood flow to the frontal cortex, impairs cognitive functions such as memory and decision-making speed, heightens sensitivity to perceived risk, and diverts energy and attention away from actually solving the problem.

Worry wards off negative emotions.

Worrying can be a form of emotional avoidance, some researchers theorize. Chronic worriers report trying to protect themselves from the turbulence of emotional change (disappointment or embarrassment, for example) by keeping themselves in a negative emotional state. You can’t be disappointed if you are expecting to fail. Or they may be using worry to avoid a difficult emotional experience, such as rejection or vulnerability. However, by avoiding that experience, the worrier also avoids the therapeutic processing that could allow them to reduce their sensitivity to the emotions they fear.

When I worry, I keep bad things from happening.

Some people mistakenly equate worrying with problem-solving. It feels like they are doing something, but they are not actually moving towards a solution to the problem. Also, too much worrying can lead to new problems, such as relationship stress, negative consequences of avoiding the problem (running out of money, for example), and unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as stress shopping or alcohol or drug use).

I can get motivated by worrying.

Worrying can be useful if it generates a realistic set of action steps within someone’s control. But for the reasons detailed above, the effects of worrying more often prevent people from taking the actions that would help improve their situation. Trying to imagine and guard against threats that are unlikely to materialize is not the best use of our time and energy. And endless worrying can trigger a debilitating physical anxiety that interferes with taking action to solve the problem.

7 Tips for How to Stop Worrying

So how can we stop worrying in the face of so many fear-inducing unknowns? Or should we? Worry burnout is a real phenomenon—and it’s dangerous, because it can lead us to put ourselves in unsafe situations. (For example, it is still a good idea to do what you can to minimize your risk of getting COVID despite the exhaustion of keeping up with yet another variant.) 

It’s essential for mental health to effectively manage worry, by converting it into either action or acceptance. Here’s how:

  • Reduce whatever uncertainty you can by gathering information from reputable sources. It’s worth taking the extra time to vet your sources—who is behind the information? What is their intention? Is the information current? And is it accurate?
  • Consider your risks and options objectively. It may be useful to worry about something that has a good chance of occurring, if worry spurs you to action. But it’s not helpful if the odds are slim. Here are five tools to help with the process of evaluating risk.
  • Cultivate creativity and flexibility. Both qualities are easily squelched by the stress of chronic worry. Be aware of your state. Do you notice any of the physical signs that worry is triggering anxiety? What can you do to evoke a more relaxed, open-minded state conducive to problem-solving? Mindfulness practices offer many options.
  • Stay focused on your goals. Thinking about how to move toward a goal, rather than how to avoid a threat, is less likely to trigger a defensive stress response. Break down your goal into small, concrete steps that are realistic and rewarding. 
  • Consider reaching out to someone to serve as a mentor. It may be reassuring to hear that overcoming fear of the unknown has always been part of finding one’s way into adulthood.
  • Exercise can help discharge some of the extra energy mobilized by the stress response, and is proven to benefit mental health. Find some way to move each day, even if it is just going for a walk. 

What to Do When Worrying Becomes a Mental Health Condition

So is excessive worrying a mental illness? No, but it can make a young adult more vulnerable to anxiety or depression, or make existing mental health conditions worse. 

If you are concerned that worry is impacting your or a loved one’s mental health, contact Newport Institute today to learn more about our approach to young adult treatment and our outpatient and residential locations around the country. 

Mental Health / January 20, 2022

Newport Institute

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