Can Worrying Lead to PTSD?

Anxiety isn't all bad. Being anxious can have a purpose. It can motivate you to be well prepared for an important presentation, test, or job interview.

In addition, worry warts are often conscientious workers and make wonderfully attentive friends. But there's nothing good about excessive anxiety.

If you tend toward the obsessive, the results of a new study from Michigan State University may unfortunately give you something new to worry about. The study found that people who constantly worry might be at greater risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers followed 1,000 Michigan residents for a decade and documented a link between those with a higher level of neuroticism (a personality type known for its proclivity to over react) and the development of PTSD later in life.

In the aftermath of 9/11—and more recently, the Boston Marathon bombings—PTSD has become a familiar acronym. Trauma can be a powerful experience with long-lasting effects. Often associated with combat veterans, PTSD is an anxiety disorder resulting from exposure to severe psychological trauma. Formerly referred to as "shell shock," war is not the only traumatic event that can have negative psychological impact. PTSD has also been documented in people who have suffered through devastating natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, have been a victim of rape or domestic abuse, involved in serious car crashes, or witnesses to acts of terrorism.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 1 in 30 adults in the U.S. suffer from PTSD in a given year and that risk is much higher in war veterans. Though the exact causes of the disorder aren't known, recent research has revealed that experiencing trauma can change the way the brain works. Some individuals continue experiencing severe trauma long after it happened because they are unable to stop it from reoccurring in their minds. This can inhibit healing by keeping a person "stuck" in a pattern that may induce anxiety, anger, or substance abuse.

Though critics say some aspects of the study aren't well defined, bringing more awareness to people with a history of psychiatric disorders will likely help doctors respond more effectively to them if/when they suffer from a traumatic life experience.

Reducing Anxiety

In the meantime, if anxiety defines your life, Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in overcoming self-defeating patterns of behavior, says it's important to seek professional help. "It's one thing to fear the ocean—you can certainly live your life without swimming in it. But if you are neurotic about driving over a bridge, that fear could cause you to miss important events like a family vacation."

Healthy individuals have a wide range of responses, Sapadin explains. "You may have terrific wardrobe but if your closet is full of blue jeans, you aren't going to be well dressed at a formal affair."

To keep anxiety away, QualityHealth consulted Sapadin and Julie Pike, PhD, a licensed psychologist with the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, NC for tips.

Limit exposure to the media. Sapadin says round-the-clock access to the Internet and 24/7 cable makes it possible to see harmful images over and over again. "When Sandy Hook happened, it was hard to avoid watching it. Unfortunately bad news drives ratings," the Long Island-based expert admits. "But the trouble is TV is a 3-D experience—much more intense than reading about it one time in the newspaper. On TV, images are intensified by sound and motion."

Pike agrees: "It used to be we had to physically witness something to be affected by it. Today, TV and the Internet take us there. We are assaulted with information whether we want it or not. This can have an enormously negative impact on people."

Watch your words. Recognizing negative thoughts is the first step in turning them around. "My favorite advice to clients is that if you wouldn't say it to a child, don't say it to yourself," advises Pike. "I wouldn't wonder aloud to my 5-year-old nephew whether he was ever going learn to tie his shoes. You can't abuse yourself and expect to feel good. I don't care how old you are. "

Make time to unwind. Repeatedly telling yourself, I have so much to do, I have so much to do...only creates anxiety, according to Pike. "We live in a stressful society and we need to put more value on relaxation and balance. Strength is in finding balance."

Boost your resiliency. An important factor in coping is social support, according to Pike. "Cultivating friendships is an effective and enjoyable way of dealing with anxiety," explains the expert.

For more information about anxiety and PTSD, the following websites are good resources. Visit:;  the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies; and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Linda Sapadin, PhD, reviewed this article.




Interview with Linda Sapadin, PhD. Psychologist who specializes in overcoming self-defeating patterns of behavior. Author of, How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age.

Julie L. Pike, PhD and licensed psychologist

Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, NC
National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institutes of Health

National Center for PTSD