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More PsychNotes: Anxiety

October 15, 2015       

Being Too Aware of Your Body Can Lead to General Worrying
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Excessive worrying can be problematic for some people causing extreme anxiety and interfering with relationships. The official diagnosis for this problem is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Interesting research by Andor and colleagues (2008) shows that being too attentive to the normal physiological changes in the body can lead to excessive worrying.

Everyday, we all have changing physical sensations in our bodies which can fluctuate from hour to hour or minute to minute. Most of us dismiss these normal fluctuations before they even reach our conscious awareness. However, the researchers found that those with GAD are more aware of these sensations.

Even more interesting, the researchers found worrying tends to reduce those uncomfortable physiological sensations which, in turn, probably reinforces the worry process. So the following process occurs again and again: awareness of physical sensations > worry > less perceived physical discomfort > reinforces worry > more likely to worry when sensations occur again. This doesn't necessarily mean they worry about the sensations, just that the sensations lead to worrying.

The way they conducted the study was by using a computerized monitoring system of physiological changes. Then, the system randomly gave feedback of whether the subject was relaxed or tense (rather than the true feedback). In both those with GAD and those without, when they received false feedback of relaxation they reported less negative mood and less worrying. This shows that the normal response to awareness of tension in the body is to increase negative mood and worrying.

The difference is that those with GAD are more aware of the body's changes which leads to excessive worrying. However, this study also shows that worrying can be reduced by providing false feedback about the body. So, even though nothing changed in their body, they didn't worry as much when the equipment told them they were relaxed. Perhaps they didn't trust their perception as much as the equipment. Or, paying attention to the soft “beep” indicating whether symptoms were increasing or decreasing was a distraction. The subjects may have used the “beep” rather than their internal awareness to determine the need for worrying.

Also, those with GAD were more likely to notice sensations under quiet conditions. Therefore, worrying could be considered a distraction from the quiet—by worrying, they are no longer aware of the physical changes.

What does this mean if you have GAD? It means that if you reduce the physical reaction, you are less likely to need the worry process to occur. I know it seems like you need to worry, but this research indicates that it is the greater awareness of physical sensations that lead to worry because worry distracts from that discomfort. This means that learning to reduce the symptoms through breathing and relaxation methods (see free audio downloads) and learning to tolerate the symptoms through mindfulness methods (learn about mindfulness) can take the place of the need to worry.

Andor, T., Gerlach, A.L. and Rist (2008). Superior Perception of Phasic Physiological Arousal and the Detrimental Consequences of the Conviction to Be Aroused on Worrying and Metacognitions in GAD, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117, 193–205. DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.117.1.193

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Dr. Monica Frank

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