These disorders often develop during a period of stress in a person’s life, often due to increased work responsibilities, Davey says. So entrepreneurs, faced with increasingly complicated and numerous challenges, may be at risk.
The refrain of the toxic worrier: “What if?” “If you start asking ‘what if’ questions, 85 percent of those scenarios are never likely to happen,” says Davey. “So 85 percent of the problems you’re creating are a waste of time.” (As French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once put it, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”)
Ironically, this can have a reinforcing effect: If you worry about something that never happens, you may believe your worrying is what stopped it.
Davey recalls a colleague who used to joke, “Every morning, I wake up worried I’ll be trampled by elephants. But it hasn’t happened yet, so my worry must be working.”
Some people resort to compulsive behavior in an effort to rein in their anxieties. Anyone who’s ever checked his email every few minutes can relate to that.
“I have students in my seminar groups who, if their phone goes off, they just get up and leave the room,” Davey says. “Not only is that rude, but it’s a compulsion.”
“Technology comes up a lot when I talk about this,” says Sweeny, who recalls the time her parents were nearly hit by hurricane. “A few years ago, I could maybe check the weather channel once in a while. But now I can check the weather app on my phone anytime. That doesn’t help.”
Compulsions can be helpful or harmful. Checking your email when you’re anxious, for example, can help you acquire a greater sense of certainty, Davey says. But if you’re doing it at inappropriate times—say, when spending time with your partner or with friends—that’s not good.
“The manifest difference between productive and unproductive worry,” Sweeny says, “is whether it turns off once its job is done.”
“There’s something to learning how to say, ‘Thanks, worry, your job is done,’ and then turning it off,” she says. Of course, that’s not always easy, but it can be done.