Why worriers see the world as full of danger
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
We all worry about different things. What stresses me doesn’t stress you. But it’s true that worriers see the world as full of danger.
Some people love giving speeches; others would rather die. Some people bulldoze through criticism; others curl up and hide. And some intrepid souls scale cliffs while the rest of us watch in fear.
So what makes someone who can jump a ravine quake at the sight of a spider?
Different things stress different people
It all depends on what you perceive to be a threat. Some people breeze through life and ignore any possible danger. On the other hand, worriers perceive threats lurking everywhere.
Most of us are somewhere in between these two extremes. So what makes us all perceive threats differently?
One major factor is your genetics. Do you have several relatives who are worriers? Then you may have a genetic predisposition to worry.
This doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be a worrier. But if you’re under stress, you may worry more than others in the same situation.
2 Past experience
Another factor is past experience. Past scary events, maybe when you were younger, can make you think the world is a dangerous place.
3 Role models
A third factor is the role models you were exposed to when younger. You may have learned the worry habit by watching others who worried.
For instance, your mother may have fussed a lot about small issues. She may have seen them as huge problems, when in fact they weren’t. But you learned that worrying is the way to deal with annoyances.
Over time, the worry habit became the main way you deal with the world. And you may not realise how much worriers see the world as full of danger.
If you’re vulnerable to worry, even small events can trigger intense worry. For example, some children feel extremely worried if their teacher growls at them, or their parent picks them just up a few minutes late.
Other more carefree children probably don’t worry as much. They may not be as vulnerable to worry, and so react differently.
But even the hardiest souls can worry, if put under enough stress.
Short-term worry triggers
Imagine a series of difficult events happening to you all at once. You’re put off work, default on your housing loan and argue with your partner.
Most people would face a wave of fear or stress for days or weeks. However eventually you’d work out some solutions, even if they’re not perfect. The worry reaction would reduce once you carry out a plan to manage your problems.
Worriers focus on physical symptoms
But worriers find managing emotions and solving problems harder than other people. They usually focus more on getting rid of the horrible physical reactions they feel, rather than solving the actual problem.
For example, they desperately want to get rid of the pounding heart, sweating, shaking, dizziness and/or nausea.
And the thoughts of worriers get tangled up, so they can’t think as clearly or keep things in perspective. Compared to other people, worriers see the world as full of danger.
The stress reaction
So what is the stress reaction that worriers feel when they’re faced with something they perceive to be scary?
The mere whiff of danger sends a worrier’s body into overdrive. Both your body and brain react quickly.
But your body reacts faster than your brain.
So the fight or flight response kicks in regardless. You’re flooded with horrible feelings throughout your body. These feelings are so bad, they convince you the threat must be real.
But that’s not necessarily true.
Your brain hasn’t had time to work out if the threat is real or not. Instead, it focusses on the physical feelings. The fear of experiencing those awful bodily feelings any longer fills your thoughts. You’re sure they must be harmful.
So it’s really hard to think of anything else but getting rid of them. That stops your brain from assessing the risk properly.
So what are these physical reactions that are so unpleasant?
Everyone, not just worriers, experiences this fight or flight reaction at some time. But worriers probably tend to feel it more often, and more strongly than others.
In the typical fight or flight reaction, you may feel several of the following:
Strong urge to escape or run away
Shaking, feeling dizzy or faint
Nausea or butterflies in the stomach
Sweating or feeling hot and cold.
All these changes are natural and are meant to happen when you’re scared. They’re caused by various chemicals in the body such as adrenalin. However the sensations are highly unpleasant.
In the past, this fight or flight reaction was useful. Each physical symptom was due to a bodily reaction that helped you to:
stand and fight your enemy
run away to safety
freeze to escape detection
faint (very occasionally).
And today, it’s still useful if you’re in a truly dangerous situation. For example, where someone may be hurt physically or psychologically. These sensations are a warning that there’s danger.
(NB: all articles about worry on this blog assume you’re not facing real bodily or psychological harm. If you are, seek help from the police, your GP or a DV organisation.)
However, here we’re talking about daily hassles. And most daily hassles nowadays aren’t usually this dangerous. They may be more annoyances or worries like not finding a carpark, talking to your child’s teacher, throwing a dinner party, or giving a speech.
There’s no real harm of being physically hurt. And the psychological danger appears at first glance to be minimal.
Yet these hassles can still trigger an intense fight or flight reaction from some people.
So what’s going on?
1 Worriers see the world as full of danger
Your brain evolved to scan your surroundings for danger. If it perceives a threat, it tells your body to prepare to run or fight. The trouble is – the brain isn’t very good at telling the difference between real and imagined threats.
When your brain perceives a risk, it tells you the risk is probably real. And if you’re a worrier, your brain perceives small hassles as real threats.
So worriers perceive more risks, and more severe risks, than others do.
2 Your emotional brain overreacts
The worrier’s brain is then flooded with a cascade of worry thoughts.
For example, what if you’re late for that appointment because you couldn’t get a park?
The specialist will be angry with you.
What if they treat you badly because of their annoyance?
What if they don’t pick up what’s really wrong with you?
You could already have a terrible illness that they overlook.
And then you’ll die.
3 The risk seems real
The strange thing is, you don’t question if these thoughts are realistic or not. They seem so real.
Certainly, your physical distress definitely is real. So you assume your fears about your health must be real as well.
In fact, you’re probably completely healthy or only have a minor condition. But your hair-trigger worry reaction convinces you you’re dying.
So if you’re a worrier, it’s important to know that the messages your brain sends can be wrong.
On the other hand, people who don’t worry much don’t get many of these messages. Or if they do get them, they flick them away. They think through the issue, and realise their brain is overreacting.
4 Catastrophic thought cycles
However, worriers can’t tell that many of these messages are false. So if you’re a worrier, you’ll be worried for no reason a lot of the time.
The trouble is, your thoughts can run away with these false messages. Your mind predicts terrible things will happen. So you believe you’ll never be able to cope and it’ll all end in disaster.
The more you think like this, the worse your body feels. Then your body symptoms trigger more catastrophic thoughts. In turn, these thoughts trigger even more body symptoms.
5 Worry feeds on itself
So the worry feeds on itself, and now the fear reaction is in full swing.
Soon you’ll end up worn out with worry. You’re still terrified something terrible is going to happen. You have no idea how you’re going to manage.
All you can think of is how disaster is looming. And you don’t know how to deal with it.
6 Your logical brain plays catch up
Meanwhile, your logical thinking processes are lagging behind. When the logical part of your brain finally tells you’re not in serious danger, you don’t believe it.
You’ve already bought into the panicky worry messages that the emotional part of your brain has been sending you.
All you know is that you feel really bad. Your thoughts are telling you something bad is going to happen. So something bad really must really be about to happen, right?
7 You can’t believe everything your brain tells you
Yes, your fears and worries seem so real! And the more they play in your head, the more convincing they are. You just can’t believe they could be false.
But they probably are.
Just because these reactions are convincing, doesn’t mean they’re right. Worriers see the world as full of danger, and perceive risk where there’s little or none.
So remember the next time you’re highly stressed or worried: your brain will be sending you false messages much of the time.
Many of your thoughts will be highly distorted. You can’t really trust them, without checking them out.
The worst thing is, you’re now convinced you’ll never cope.
8 Exaggerated risks
Yet almost all of these thoughts are exaggerated. Most of the time, the terrible event doesn’t even happen. And when it does, it’s usually nowhere near as bad as predicted.
For example, how many worriers repeatedly call an ambulance, convinced they’re having a heart attack?
A large proportion find out they’re having a panic attack instead. Their bodies and brains trick them into thinking they’re in great danger. In fact, panic attacks are unpleasant but not dangerous to otherwise healthy people.
9 Sometimes bad things do happen
And yes, sometimes bad things do happen.
Perhaps you’ve had a run of bad luck. Or something bad has happened to someone you know. That’s sad and unfortunate.
But it doesn’t mean bad things are going to happen all the time. Or that every one of them will be an absolute catastrophe.
What’s more, most of the time you will somehow manage to cope.
10 Ask yourself: How many worries come true?
Worriers tend to let their worry thoughts gather momentum. They don’t seem able to examine or modify them.
Instead, worriers focus on controlling their body sensations. This means they don’t notice how few worries actually come true. Or that the vast majority never happen at all.
So they never realise their thoughts greatly exaggerate the risk of bad things happening. Instead, worriers see the world as full of danger.
So worriers struggle through a life full of perceived perils. They never see how few of these really pose a true risk. Worriers see the world differently to those who don’t worry.
If this sounds like you, it’s time to live more fully without worry.
Sick of seeing the world through worry glasses? Find out what’s keeping your worry habit alive.