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Look on the bright side says new research into worry

02 February 2009

We all worry from time to time, but some people find it impossible to stop. When their worry is uncontrollable and it interferes with their day-to-day living, they may suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, one of the most common anxiety problems. New research shows that simply helping people to change the way they think reduces the run-away nature of worry. This is the finding of a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology today by Dr Colette Hirsch and Dr Sarra Hayes from King’s College London, and a colleague from the University of California. The research was supported by a grant from the Medical Research Council.

People with this generalised anxiety disorder typically make negative interpretations of information that could be interpreted in either a positive or a negative manner, whereas individuals who do not worry excessively tend to make positive interpretations of the same information. It was not previously clear if the negative interpretations typically made by high worriers and people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder contributed to the vicious cycle of worry. Using a novel paradigm to facilitate more positive interpretations the present study was able to shed new light on this issue.

The study investigated whether generating more positive interpretations helps reduce the tendency to worry. The researchers recruited people who were chronic worriers and over half had problems so severe that they would have met diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. People were allocated to a condition which helped them develop a tendency to generate positive interpretations, or a control condition which left their normal tendency to make negative interpretations unchanged. People in the positive interpretation group worried less and had fewer negative thought intrusions when they were trying to focus on the task at hand. Furthermore, they had less concentration problems, as evidenced by more residual working memory capacity during worry.

This study confirms that worriers’ normal negative interpretation bias has an important role in keeping worry going. Given that people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder have this tendency to generate negative interpretations, this may provide a new potential way to help reduce worry. Furthermore, it suggests that psychological therapies which focus on developing more positive interpretations will help reduce worry.

Dr Hirsch, Senior Lecturer and Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, comments: 'These findings support the growing body of evidence that helping people make more positive interpretations is the key to helping people whose lives are seriously affected by worrying. We think this work has the potential to help people who suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder’.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder is a chronic and disabling disorder that affects over 5% of the general population, often resulting in severe cognitive, occupational, and social dysfunction. The key defining feature of Generalised Anxiety Disorder is worry concerning a range of different topics. Whereas proneness to worry varies continuously across the normal population, individuals with GAD are often distinguished from individuals with non-pathological worry by their reported uncontrollability of worry once it is initiated. Difficulty controlling worry often results in prolonged bouts of worry that are difficult to switch off, which may cause the sufferer significant distress and impair functioning.  There are pharmacological and psychological treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder, with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy being one of the most effective interventions.

The papers authors are: Colette R Hirsch, PhD, D Clin Psych, Sarra Hayes, PhD, and Andrew Mathews, PhD

For a copy of the full paper Looking on the bright side: Accessing benign meanings reduces worry please refer directly to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2009; Vol 118, Issue 1




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