When fretting is in your DNA

Worry warts often believe they inherited their tendency to stew from their parents. Biology does play a role, research suggests, but there are things you can do to break the cycle of agonizing.

Researchers at Yale have identified a gene mutation for ”rumination” – the kind of chronic worry in which people obsess over negative thoughts. It’s a variation of a gene known as BDNF that’s active in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in thinking and memory. In a study of 200 mothers and daughters published in the journal Neuroscience Letters last month, the Yale scientists found that those who had been depressed in their youth were more likely to be ruminators and to have this particular variation of BDNF.

The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that depression involves an inability to control negative thoughts, not just excess emotion, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, one of the Yale investigators. And just because rumination has genetic roots doesn’t mean it’s inescapable, she says. ”People can learn to stop these thought processes and have better emotional health.”

Some successful professionals find that worry works for them. Imagining everything that might go wrong, and preparing for it, is known as ”defensive pessimism.”

”I spend all day thinking of ways to gain an advantage over my adversaries, and I assume they’re doing the same thing,” says Victor Bushell, a partner at Bushell, Sovak, Ozer & Gulmi LLP. ”If that was your job description, wouldn’t you be worried?”

Other people use worry as a kind of magical shield – if they worry that the plane will crash, it won’t. It doesn’t, ergo, they have to worry on every flight.

Worrying also seems to be part of some people’s personalities. ”I’ve been furrowing my forehead forever – you could pick me out in kindergarten,” says Pam Abramson Grisman, who runs a custom-writing business in Mill Valley, Calif. ”These days, I worry about my parenting. Prior to that, it was focused completely on the workplace. Prior to that, it was, ‘Am I cool enough to live?”’

But worrying is wearying, she says: ”It’s like chronic pain, and ultimately it doesn’t shield you anymore. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then you have a heart attack.”

Chronic worry can, in fact, lead to a variety of health issues, including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, studies have shown. Rumination, which focuses more on past events than future what-ifs, has also been linked to binge eating, binge-drinking and self-harm. Ruminators may be subconsciously trying to stop their harmful thoughts, says Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema. ”Disengaging is really, really hard – you see that in their neural activity and in their behavior,” she adds. But studies have shown that doing something distracting for just 10 minutes can break the cycle and help people tackle problems more effectively.

Techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy can also help worriers stop the kind of thinking that just makes them miserable.

”It’s all about finding the balance between productive and unproductive worrying,” says psychologist Robert L. Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. ”Say to yourself, ‘Is this worry leading to a To Do list?’ If it doesn’t lead to some action on your part today, set it aside.”

He suggests literally reserving 20 minutes a day to worry. If you can postpone worrying, you are exercising control over it, rather than letting it control you.

And learn to accept some risks. ”Worriers feel a tremendous intolerance for uncertainty. They get the idea that worrying can eliminate it. But you can’t prepare for everything,” Dr. Leahy adds. He also suggests a simple ”exposure” technique: Practice saying or writing whatever you fear most, such as, ”the plane is going to crash” or ”I’m going to lose my job.” ”Repeat it over and over again slowly, like a zombie, and the fear will begin to subside,” he says. Eventually, ”you’ll just get bored with it.”___

Breaking the Cycle

For more on how to stop worry from taking over your life, see these books:

_ ”The Worry Cure,” by Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D.

_ ”Women Who Think Too Much,” by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D.

_ ”Eating, Drinking, Overthinking,” by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D.

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