Don't Worry, Be Happy: Worrying Less Can Lengthen Your Life

Are you constantly stressed out?

Don't worry. Be happy. It's more than just a catchy tune. It's a way to prolong your life.

A recently published study by Purdue University tracked 1,663 middle-age and older men over 12 years. Those who scored above the 50th percentile in neuroticism, and whose neurotic tendencies worsened by 20 percent over the years, were 40 percent more likely to die during the study period than those men whose neuroticism remained stable.

One more thing to worry about, you say? Perhaps, but the study also indicated that those who got their neuroticism under control had about the same mortality as those who scored high in emotional stability.

Neuroticism, as defined by the study, is excessive worry over minor events and setbacks, as well as a tendency to overpredict negative consequences and underpredict one's coping ability.

Of course, the Purdue study isn't the lone Woody Allen voice in the wilderness. Many others have linked worry, anxiety and depression to disease and diminished mental health.

A study based out of Chicago's Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center found that older people who worried or were depressed were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, which is a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

Israeli researchers studying workplace stress found it can lead to increased rates of flu virus, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Wringing your hands yet? It gets worse.

Links to Illness


At the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, San Francisco, researchers have linked stress, anxiety and depression to a host of maladies, including high blood pressure, strokes, cardiovascular disease, compromised immune systems, ulcers, headaches and more. Stress can even lead to behavioral changes resulting in obesity and alcoholism, they found.

Well, maybe you should be a tad worried, but rein it in or you'll just make things worse!

"Anxiety is the No. one diagnosis in psychiatry," says Dr. Robert Olsen, a psychiatrist with Presbyterian Medical Group. "There is an overlap with depression and you can have anxiety and depression. They can cohabitate, but they are two separate diagnoses.

"More than 50 percent of the people I see in my practice have anxiety or an anxiety component. Less than half of everybody will have a diagnosable anxiety disorder that may or may not require treatment at some point in their lives. But 100 percent of human beings will experience anxiety at some point in their lives--situational or otherwise."

Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, and they are related.

Stress, says Olsen, is an internalized response to external or internal triggers that causes heightened sensitivity and a possible need for adaptation.

"Anxiety in psychiatry is a physiological response to stress and can become a disorder."

Normal situations that may cause stress are things like taking a test, preparing taxes or planning a wedding. In extreme cases, those stresses become magnified and cause anxiety and illness.

"If a thought process consumes an inordinate amount of brain space so that it negatively impacts your social life, professional life or otherwise your well-being, then we would consider that pathology."

According to Olsen, some people try to "waylay" their stress and anxiety through alcohol, drugs or food. "Others will try to suppress it, taking it out on their loved ones by fighting and having dysfunctional families."

If there is no underlying medical reason for those feelings, medications can help in the short term or longer, Olsen says. Other coping mechanisms include getting better sleep, doing daily exercises to release endorphins in the brain, practicing meditation techniques, reconnecting with spirituality and taking regular breaks and vacations.

"It's OK to be a little selfish and take time out for yourself," Olsen says.

"We'll always have something to cause anxiety, but when it goes from worry to nonstop worry, then we really should evaluate what's going on around us and seek to make positive changes. Worrying about worrying can perpetuate the worry. I can't prove that you can worry yourself to death, but I think worry can lead to a state of frenzy and exhaustion and can cause primary or secondary health changes or relationship changes that can shorten your life."

How Do You Feel?

Linda Atterdig, a licensed psychotherapist at Rio Grande Counseling and Guidance Service, says stress isn't tangible. "You can't point to it and say, 'That's stress.' It's really created by our own individual beliefs. You may make more money than I do, but you may be stressed out more about money than I am, based on your personal beliefs about money and how the world works."

A number of her clients have physical symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome, digestion problems, stomach ulcers and high blood pressure. Many are concurrently experiencing transitions in their personal lives with clearly identifiable things that contribute to their mental state: loss of a loved one, end of a relationship, retirement, legal issues or financial problems.

But it's also clear that many others "create things to worry about--even things that haven't happened yet," Atterdig says. "That's because we live in the past or the future. We don't stay in the present moment. If we did, we'd stay engaged in our lives moment by moment, and we'd be able to greatly reduce our stress."

By the time clients come to see her, "they feel stuck or overwhelmed," Atterdig says. "Basically, their coping skills aren't working anymore."

She works with clients to find out what drives their thinking patterns, and then strives to change those patterns using a host of therapies, including meditation and mindfulness.

"That's the discipline of sitting each day for a certain period of time, mindful of being present in the moment," she explains. "If you want a healthy mind you have to pay attention to what you're feeding it. A constant diet of 'Law & Order,' 'CSI' and CNN will affect your thinking patterns.

"What you feed your mind matters. If you feed it inspirational and affirmative material, it will help you create habitual ways of thinking that are positive and healthy.

"I'm not saying don't watch the news. I'm just saying find a balance."

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