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Worrying is a mental state characterized by a sense of uneasiness and a tendency to dwell on existing problems or potential future problems. In certain contexts, this mental state functions as a natural, beneficial part of the human emotional repertoire. However, if left unchecked, worrying can turn into an excessive, unproductive process that increases one’s levels of fear and anxiety and decreases one’s sense of general well-being. According to the results of a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Medicine, people who persistently engage in worry have increased risks for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of highly stressful events.

Worrying Basics

In its beneficial context, worrying helps promote survival by “telling” you to review your actions and determine whether those actions provide safety and help you reach your short- and long-term goals. People who worry in this beneficial way do such things as make sure they lock their doors at night, fill their cars with gas before taking long trips, save money to cover future expenses, and periodically check on their children’s whereabouts. However, people who worry excessively may become fixated on issues related to goals and safety, and thereby develop fearful or anxious emotional states that make it difficult or impossible to live in the present with a sense of satisfaction or contentment.

Normally, the brain controls worry with the help of higher-level functions such as rational thought, judgment, decision-making, planning, and memory (known collectively as executive functions). However, there is a significant amount of genetic variability in the strength of these functions, and some people have a better inborn ability to control worry than others. In addition to these inherited factors, a number of environmental factors can influence a person’s susceptibility to worry. For instance, a number of studies have shown that people exposed to unstable childhood environments have an increased tendency to engage in worry. People whose parents go out of the way to protect or shield them from life’s realities frequently display a similar tendency.

PTSD Basics

PTSD is a form of medically serious anxiety that sometimes arises in the aftermath of traumatic events or situations such as physical assaults or abuse, sexual assaults or abuse, natural disasters, major accidents, involvement in combat, exposure to terrorist attacks or the death of a loved one. Underlying all of these events and situations is a common element of life endangerment or major life disruption. People affected by PTSD commonly have flashbacks or nightmares centered on the source of their trauma, avoid future situations that remind them of their traumatic experiences, become unusually “touchy” or jittery, and develop memory gaps regarding key aspects of their traumatic experiences.

Worrying’s Influence on PTSD Risks

Large numbers of people experience traumatic situations or events at some point in their lifetimes. However, only a small number of the individuals exposed to various sorts of trauma go on to develop PTSD. In the study published in Psychological Medicine, a team of researchers from Michigan State University used a 10-year examination of 1,000 random individuals to explore the reasons behind this relatively low rate of PTSD in people who go through traumatic experiences. At the beginning of the study, each of the participants answered a series of questions designed to determine their baseline level of worry (characterized as neuroticism in the study’s terminology). All of the participants also answered the same set of questions at intervals of three, five, and ten years.

After 10 years’ time, roughly 50 percent of the people enrolled in the study had experienced some form of trauma strong enough to trigger the onset of PTSD; 5 percent of the study’s participants actually developed the disorder. After making a statistical analysis, the authors of the study concluded that the participants who habitually or repeatedly experienced worried states of mind had a much greater chance of developing PTSD than the participants who did not consistently experience worried states of mind.

Significance

The authors of the study published in Psychological Medicine believe that their findings present the first clear evidence that chronic or excessive worrying can set the stage for the onset of PTSD. They also believe that their findings help explain why PTSD only affects a small percentage of people exposed to traumatic experiences. In addition, they believe that their findings can help doctors identify individuals with the highest PTSD risks in the aftermath of trauma, and also improve doctors’ ability to provide those individuals with treatment as soon as possible if PTSD symptoms actually occur.

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