How to help the excessively worried partner

Worry is a familiar feeling to most people. Some find it a helpful way to secure their safety, others take pride in being loyal, devoted or loving by worrying about others. Yet, many people find worry a difficult, non-relenting, haunting and disturbing preoccupation.

The dictionary definition of worry is “to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts”. This is a common habit for most people some of the time and some people most of the time. People who are otherwise not inclined to fret, find themselves doing so at times of threat, crisis or in a state of uncertainty. For example, when working in a company at a time of impending layoffs, most employees feel fear, concern or worry about their future. Worrywarts are defined as those who “worry often and without reason”, these individuals may feel frightened about the security of their employment even when they have just been praised and promoted while working in a thriving company.

Excessive worry is an exhausting mental process that leads to a deepened sense of helplessness and fear. People who worry regularly tend to repeatedly rehearse in their minds the worse case scenarios of possible future negative events and immediately feel the terror of the situations as though it have already occurred. The tormenting thoughts exacerbate one’s powerlessness and immobility. It also prevents these worriers from thinking logically about options for possible actions needed to alleviate the fear- producing potential crises.

There is a difference between worry and concern. Being concerned about a possible negative future situation such as: a fire, injury, loss of employment, disability or even death, is a cognitive process open to logical exploration of ways to protect oneself and one’s family. Intense worry is the obsessive creation of potential traumas that is part of an anxiety sequence, blocking logical resolutions. In feeling concern, one is propelled to resolve the emotional discomfort by, for instance, getting insurance, starting a savings plan, or writing a will. Worrying about the same issues produces overwhelming fear and panic that blocks access to logical assessment and emotional reprieve.

Cynthia L. Turk, Richard G. Heimberg and colleagues identified worry as the central feature of generalized anxiety disorder GAD. Startup and Davey suggested that people “begin to use worry to escape a threatening emotional experience and end up less able to regulate their emotions”. Douglas S. Mennin and others, found that “students with GAD reported heightened intensity of emotions, poorer understanding of emotions, greater negative reactivity to emotional experience, and less ability to self- soothe after negative emotions than others who were not anxious.” Similarly, Foa & Kozak found that “Rather than processing an emotion through attention, understanding, and experiencing, they may utilize worry and other intra- and interpersonal processes to avoid the distress associated with these emotions.

In couples, the ability to understand and discuss emotions enables partners to calm and soothe each other. It is also a good way to open communication about moving the worry to the realm of concern, where solutions can be found and worry can be replaced by hope.

If your partner is a worrywart:

• Understand that your mate is unsuccessfully attempting to protect him/herself from threat.
• Realize that the repeated haunting images of doom, are not intended to negatively impact you, but are a result of your partner’s inability to identify emotions and regulate them.
• Your spouse’s obsessive negative thinking and his/her restricted access to positive emotions is caused by his/her overall anxiety. It is not about you, nor is it intended to cloud your mood.
• Abstain from getting angry, reasoning with your partner’s logic, or using general reassurances. These methods are often ineffective.
• Refrain from judging your partner about not exhibiting joy and happiness – it is a part of the worry prone mechanism.
• Realign your expectations for positive feedback from your mate. Research by Turk and Heimberg suggests that: “socially anxious individuals may not exhibit expressive behaviors indicating happiness, warm feelings, or excitement in appropriate contexts”.
• Attempt to rephrase the worry-filled idea as a concern for which resolutions may be sought. It may be effective some of the time.
• Strongly encourage your mate to seek counseling. Research by Turk and others suggests that cognitive behavioral techniques such as relaxation training and cognitive restructuring benefit excessive worriers.
• Maintain your positive and happy disposition – it is a balancing factor in your relationship.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life.

Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions.

Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column “Relationship Matters” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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