I Worry — A Lot. How Much Worrying Is Normal?

Everyone does it, but how much is too much? Dr. Danielle Martin tries to ease your worries about worrying.

Q: I come from “a long line of worriers,” as my family puts it — but I feel overwhelmed sometimes. How do I know if the amount of worrying I do is normal?

Some amount of worry is totally normal — it shows that you are noticing risk. But it should be experienced in addition to joy, hope, gratitude and the full range of emotions.

If the people close to you note that you perceive only the potential downside of a situation, that’s something you need to pay attention to. And if worrying is starting to impair your level of day-to-day functioning, or you feel that it’s taking over your life, then you might have a diagnosable anxiety disorder — and you need to discuss how you are feeling with your doctor or health care provider. Sleep is a big marker: If you can’t sleep because you feel unable to “turn your mind off,” that is a sign that things may be off the rails.

Be aware, too, that anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. With increased worrying, are you also experiencing sadness, social isolation or debilitating fatigue? If so, you may need to look for support.

One good tool for assessing how severe the impact of worry is on your life is the GAD-7, a seven-item screening questionnaire for generalized anxiety disorder available online. You can fill it out at home and then bring the results to your health care provider as a way to start a conversation.

But even if worrying is not impairing functioning, that doesn’t mean it’s fun to live with. People whose degree of worrying or anxiety is technically in the range of normal, but who wish that they worried less, can still do something about it.

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Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on building skills to help change negative thought patterns. If you’re dealing with mild anxiety, there are lots of online resources that can guide you through CBT exercises: Try MoodGym, an Australian program, or the book Mind over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction, a form of meditation, has also been shown to help. (Again, this doesn’t necessarily require one-on-one therapy — there are books and online resources to learn from, and groups all over the country.) And finally, regular, vigorous exercise is very important for mental health, not just physical health, and can help people with anxious tendencies.

Remember: To love others is to worry. To work in a job that you care about is to worry. But there are ways to better balance that worry, if needed.

Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

Watch: A quick yoga routine to help you sleep better.