A New Study Explains the Psychology of the Worry Spiral

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar at all: You’re supposed to meet a friend for coffee at one, let’s say. It’s now 1:10 and she’s not there, and she hasn’t answered your text, either. You know, objectively, that she’s probably just stuck on the subway or something, but you still can’t help running through all the other possibilities: She’s gotten into some terrible accident. She’s been abducted. She choked on a piece of food in her apartment and no one’s found her yet. As the minutes tick by, you find yourself increasingly convinced that your friend has stumbled into a fate much more sinister than a train delay.

If you’ve been there before, you may be a pathological worrier: someone more highly attuned to threats, and more likely to find yourself trapped in a worry spiral when you sense one. In a new review paper in the journal Biological Psychology and highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest, psychologists explain what tips worrying from normal into problematic, and and why it can be so difficult to stop once you get started.

“For most people, worrying has a purpose,” the study authors wrote, “whether it be to solve perceived problems of daily living, as an attempt to repair negative mood, or as a means to try and ensure that ‘bad’ things do not happen or to avoid future catastrophes.” That’s not to say that anyone really enjoys the process — just that it can feel like a productive use of time, rather than a waste of it.

That’s generally true across the board; what separates the pathological worriers from the rest of the pack isn’t that they see a point to worrying, but that they have better follow-through. Most of the time, you’ll worry until don’t want to worry anymore — the anxious thoughts serve their purpose, and once they stop feeling useful, you turn your attention to other things. But “problem worriers tend to have a kind of perfectionist approach,” Jarrett explained: Once they start down a path of worrying, they feel compelled to “working through every eventuality and solving every problem.”

The key to breaking out of the spiral, then, is surprisingly simple: Make a concerted effort to move on once it no longer feels useful. “Thinking about the idea of stopping worrying when you’ve had enough of it, rather than when the worrying is somehow ‘finished’ or ‘complete,’ could be beneficial,” Jarrett wrote. “In fact, earlier research has shown that merely learning about the cognitive and emotional factors that feed excessive worry can help some people.” It’s hard to stop yourself from worrying entirely, but it can feel like less of a burden if you think of it as a pit stop on the way to enjoying the rest of your day.

A New Study Explains the Psychology of the Worry Spiral