College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

Worrywarts

Excessive worrying is unhealthy and treatable.

worried woman

Mary is worried but she doesn’t know why. She’s married to a great guy and they have two wonderful kids. Her family lives in a nice house in a tony neighborhood with excellent schools. She has a good job for a well-known company. But something is wrong. She usually works overtime in the evenings and weekends to compensate for the hours a day she spends worrying. She is often curt and angry with her husband and kids over the littlest things. Her boss and her family are gradually losing patience with Mary, who can’t remember the last time she got a full night’s sleep.

Mary isn’t a character on the latest episode of Desperate Housewives. She’s not even a real person, but she definitely could be, according to Howard Berenbaum, a professor of psychology and director of the Stress and Anxiety Clinic, a division of the Department of Psychology’s Psychological Services Center. Berenbaum says that Mary is an example of an average client his clinic treats who is suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a mental disorder characterized by excessive and unreasonable worry. Many people who suffer from GAD don’t realize they have a disorder.

“It’s not like a drug addiction or an alcohol addiction,” Berenbaum says. “People just think they are neurotic or worrywarts.” How do you know when it’s time to seek treatment? Berenbaum says excessive worry can make one so miserable that “it’s pretty obvious (when) someone needs help.” About a third of the clients the clinic treats have GAD, and most who seek treatment are women (women are much more likely to seek help than men). Nationally, just under 5 percent of the population suffers from GAD. People with GAD worry much or all of the time, are physically exhausted, may have panic attacks, and don’t sleep well. Berenbaum says they are hardly ever living in the moment and always looking ahead anticipating the next problem.

One way Berenbaum helps a GAD sufferer is by having the person define a set of standards the client feels he or she has to meet. “Part of what’s driving people is the fear of failure, (the) fear of disappointing others, (and the) fear of criticism,” he says. Berenbaum has GAD sufferers determine if their standards are reasonable. In the example of Mary, she might think she needs to work overtime but if she checks with her boss she might discover that working extra hours is not required. Often clients come to recognize that they don’t need to excel at everything and that for some things performing at a satisfactory level is okay.

“You can’t pick excellent for everything,” Berenbaum says. “There aren’t enough hours in the day.” Once realistic standards are set, Berenbaum works with clients to make sure their behavior is consistent with those standards. “The ironic thing is they accomplish more when their standards are lower but more realistic,” he says.

The good news for people who experience excessive worry is that there is hope with the right treatment. “Then they see what happens (with treatment),” Berenbaum says. “They see that they can get better.”

Winter 2008