While a certain amount of stress is healthy, worrying constantly, even about trivia, can wreak havoc on our mind and body in the long run

“Heard the saying ‘If I don't have anything to worry about, give me a sec and I'll think of something’? That’s me,” says Suchi. “I have no problems, I should relax, but I can’t,” she wailed. “I need something to worry about — a stopgap maybe — till the real one shows up.”

Suchi isn’t a standalone worrywart. Murali, who has joined an online book club, tweets, “So many interesting books! I worry I’ll never be able to read all the books I want to. Darn, add that to the worry list!” This is Rathi's take: “When things go well, I worry it won’t last, something awful is just waiting to happen.” Is worrying hereditary, she asks. “My super worrier mother told me to expect the worst, so when it happened we would be prepared.” What if nothing did? “It’s a happy surprise!” Crazy!

Even those of us who aren’t pessimists do a lot of worrying. Brother is late, could it be an accident? Son/Daughter has gone driving to Mamallapuram with friends, what am I supposed to think? Kid says he isn’t hungry, is he coming down with something? Watched medical programme on television, do I have it? Dog won't eat, is he...? Yeah, we can worry about any topic. Wish there's a way to outsource it.

Worrying and a level of anxiety are natural, even beneficial, say psychologists. If you don't worry about a warning from your boss, mail from a client or a call from your editor, why would you complete your work on time? “Definitely, a certain amount of positive stress helps achieve goals,” says Dr. Keerthi Pai, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Apollo Hospitals. Simple tasks such as punctuality, following the traffic rules, cleanliness and queue discipline are possible only when one worries about being caught. She classifies it as external Locus Of Control when stress comes from outside and internal LOC when it is generated in-house.

Mental health issues

“Worrying is part of human nature,” agrees Dr. Sitaram, Psychiatrist, Apollo Hospitals. “When it becomes the dominant activity, it's a problem, irrespective of what one is focussing on.” It could indicate mental health issues such as generalised anxiety disorder or depression, he says. It could also be due to a host of neurotic conditions — obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, eating disorders or psychotic group of disorders. Long-standing worry could contribute to illnesses — expect hypertension, Type-2 diabetes or ischemic heart disease.

Worry/stress can be chronic or acute. It’s about how much you can take. In small, continual doses or as an unexpected attack (sudden loss), it doesn't do you good. Your immune system goes for a toss, you find yourself staring at physical/emotional problems. “Constant worrying is not a neurological condition per se,” adds Dr. Sitaram. “Research points to deficits/imbalances in neuro-chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin, noradrenaline) that could make one vulnerable to chronic worrying.” It needn’t be purely biological, either. There could be social, psychological or psychodynamic factors that cause sustained worrying. It’s a challenge for psychiatrists and psychologists.

Dr. Keerthi has a slew of suggestions to keep it in check. “Even with illnesses such as cancer, people who are positive get better faster and don’t have as many relapses. When you fear there is a problem lurking somewhere, you forget there is a solution somewhere too. Is worrying your hobby and you talk about it constantly? Be warned,” she says. People will stop taking your calls and won't reply to your e-mails. You lose that crucial family/friends support system and sink into more anxiety and depression.

Here's Dr. Keerthi's prescription for the “worrying” syndrome. The first step: understand that worrying is common, there is no stigma to accepting anxiety or depression. Next, make a lifestyle change. Walk/exercise daily. Interact with people without bothering them with your worries and ailments. Stop making comparisons. Remember each one is special to someone. Make a list of your positives and achievements and read it when stressed. Praise yourself in front of the mirror — that’s positive feedback after criticism from a cruel world. Develop a hobby, take up gardening (even grow house-plants). Paint, play with neighbourhood kids, baby-sit, have a spa massage. Do cognitive exercises such as crossword and Sudoku. Try video games, visit Nature spots. I know a family that takes turns to sit in a cane “worry chair” and rock.

Suchi isn't brainwashed. “If I quit worrying about things for a while, heaven forbid for a month, I might forget how to worry!” she says. “Stop practising; your skill gets rusty. Never miss a day of worry. Use it or lose it.” I hear she is planning to write “The Art of Worrying – for Dummies”!

DO AWAY WITH IT

* Check if your LOC internal or external. Then try to reduce it.

* It is possible your physical illness is connected to anxiety.

* Develop a solid support system of neighbours/friends/family.

* Do you pray, alone or with a group?