01/29/2015 06:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are You a Worrier or a Warrior?

My mother in-law used to say "If you worry you die, if you don't worry you die, so why worry." None of her offspring are worriers either. Is it because they learned from an early age that worry is such a total waste of time? Or could it be that they are 'warriors' rather than 'worriers'?

Worriers versus Warriors
The following is a case report from a neuroscience paper on the subject of "Warriors versus Worriers".

Jolene was discussing her fraternal twin sons with her primary care physician. It was amazing how different they were. Jason loved to be outside, excelled at downhill skating, and looked forward to anything that involved thrills and spills (martial arts, roller coasters, etc.). John, on the other hand, loved reading, was superb at chess, and tried to avoid anything that involved possible injury (martial arts, roller coasters, etc.). She was quite sure that her sons had differed from birth; although she had provided them with the same home, they had developed different likes and different skills. She found it necessary to respond to them in entirely different ways in order to prevent the various excesses that each was prone to and to bring out the best in them.

Are you a Jason or a John?

Ozzy Osbourne - Worrier and Warrior
Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath fame has both the 'worier' and 'warrior' gene. Ozzy discovered that he has two versions of a gene known as COMT. The first is often called the 'warrior' variant and the second is known as the 'worrier' variant. The presence of the warrior gene helps explain his legendry, high risk - often destructive behaviour, while evidence of a worrier gene explains his simultaneous tendency toward anxiety and insecurity. Ozzy says "Being a warrior -- the crazy bat-eating Prince of Darkness -- has made me famous. Being a worrier has kept me alive when some of my dearest friends never made it beyond their mid-twenties."

Catastrophic Thinking and Worry
In my experience, worry often takes the form of catastrophic 'what if ...' type thinking. "What if the business goes to the wall?" "What if she never recovers?" "What if it's my heart?" "What if I'm having a stroke?" Catastrophising has been identified as a "distorted thinking style". In other words, when we think in this catastrophic way, we are not seeing reality as it is, i.e. in an objective way. Instead we see it through a lens - a catastrophic lens which distorts and changes what we see.

Take Myles for example, he had been under a lot of pressure at work and was having trouble meeting his targets. One day, out of the blue, he started to feel dizzy and lightheaded. Because he had never felt anything like this before, he started to worry, "What if it's a brain tumour?" "What if it's a stroke?" What if I'm going to die?" As he continued to think in this catastrophic way, his heart began to beat faster, his breathing sped up and his muscles became tense.

Katie was a capable and experienced project manager, responsible and conscientious. She delivered on schedule and on budget every time. But the problem for Katie was, as each project came closer to its completion date, her distorted thinking habit would 'kick in' and Katie would start to worry. Her worry often took the form of catastrophic 'what if' type thinking; "What if I don't get my project finished on time?" "What if it doesn't meet with my boss's high standards?" As she continued thinking in this catastrophic way, Katie's stress levels would rise. She wouldn't be able to 'switch off' even at week-ends. She'd find it hard to get to sleep and to stay asleep. This catastrophic response would happen each time Katie took on a new project.

Is your Catastrophic Scenario Real?
I often ask people where does their 'what if' catastrophic scenario exist, actually exist? They say "In my head." "Does it exist out in the real world?" "No it doesn't - only in my head." Yet this imagined scenario can keep the person awake at night. It can cause them great stress and distress, yet the only place that it exists, is in their own head.

Being told, not to think in this catastrophic way, usually doesn't help. And the reason that it doesn't help is that catastrophic thinking like other types of distorted thinking is a well-rehearsed habit and well-rehearsed habits are often difficult to break. To overcome your tendency to catastrophise, it is necessary to do a reality check on your 'what if' type thinking. Unfortunately, how to go about doing that is beyond the scope of this article. If you need help in putting an end to your catastrophic thinking habit and to the anxiety that it creates, you might like to check out "How to End the Worry Habit."