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Why can't I stop worrying?

4 February 2011 

Everybody worries from time to time, but some people find it impossible to stop. If worry is uncontrollable and causes problems in day-to-day life, a person may suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), one of the most common anxiety problems.

 When people think about future positive events they tend to do so using mental imagery. However, when people worry this tends to be in words and sentences. New research from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London has shown that helping people to focus on their worry in images rather than words can reduce the run-away nature of worry.

Dr Eleanor Leigh and Dr Colette Hirsch from the Department of Psychology at the IoP released the findings in early February in Behaviour Research and Therapy. The research was supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust. The study aimed to test the idea that worrying in words uses up more mental resources (working memory) than worrying in pictures, keeping people caught in a vicious worry cycle.

Dr Leigh, said: ‘Worrying uses up mental resources (working memory capacity), particularly in people prone to worry. This means that there are fewer resources available to push away these unpleasant worrisome thoughts or think about something else. This can leave people caught in a cycle of worry. People tend to worry in words and sentences with very few images and people with GAD worry in words even more than others. It has been suggested that this worrying about potential negative outcomes in words is part of the problem and maintains the worry cycle.’

The researchers recruited 24 people with high levels of worry, half of whom would have met a diagnosis for GAD, and 24 people with low levels of worry. People either thought about their worry in words and sentences or in imagery. At the same time as thinking about the worry participants were also required to perform a working memory task which was used to assess how much working memory was being taken up by the worry. The results showed that for high worriers, worrying in the normal words and sentences takes up more working memory capacity than high worriers worrying using imagery. So worriers’ tendency to worry in words helps maintain worry.  

This study provides further support for the use of imagery techniques in psychological therapies for problematic worry since this will leave more resources available to shift away from worry.

‘Worry in imagery and verbal form: effect on residual working memory capacity’ is published in this month’s Behaviour Research & Therapy Eleanor Leigh, and Colette R Hirsch, (2011). Read the paper in full

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