Worried Sick: No Mere Metaphor

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“I’m worried sick about this or that.” We toss the phrase off almost flippantly, yet most who say it do feel at least a little physically sick. The typical worried spirit comes with a queasy stomach, an elevated pulse, a throbbing headache, excessive perspiration, or all of the above. Usually these symptoms pass when the uncertainty does: the plane lands safely, the doctor gives a clean bill of health, the performance review turns out favorable, and our fretting evaporates into relief. But if the uncertainty drags on for days–or if one develops a habit and starts worrying at every excuse–the elevated pulse may become high blood pressure, the queasy stomach an ulcer.

And those are among the milder consequences. Chronic worriers have higher incidences of virtually every serious and minor health problem. The worry-sickness connection was well established generations ago: in 1940, Dr. Edward Podolsky published Worry and Disease (reissued in 1944 as Stop Worrying and Get Well), which goes into detail on how worry “feeds” everything from colds to diabetes. Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, first published in 1948, devotes a chapter to the subject.

Carnegie also emphasizes that “those who do not know how to fight worry die young”–and chronic worriers do, indeed, have noticeably shorter life expectancies. In Mt. 6:27 (New Living Translation), Jesus asks, “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” He might well have added that worries are very likely to have the opposite effect. Most worry in fact comes with some degree of built-in death wish: if life is so untrustworthy, so hopeless, why stick around at all? (Sometimes I think that “last days obsession,” not unique to our time, is simply a Christianized form of the death wish; the attitude “this world will only get worse and I can’t wait to get out of it” is reminiscent of many a suicide note.)

Assuming that most readers of this post are not eager to die, I hope I haven’t left anyone worrying himself sick about what worry is doing to him. Thinking in terms of “I’ve got to stop worrying or I’ll suffer horrible consequences” is no better for one’s health than worrying about the economy, the weather, or terrorism. Actually, “I’ve got to do something to prevent catastrophe” thinking is involved in all worries (who, these days, hasn’t been scolded for adding to global warming through unnecessary use of motorized vehicles?)–and that I thinking is the root cause of worry. Human attempts to take full responsibility for “making everything new” (which is God’s job, according to Revelation 21:5) are what really get us to the toxic-worry point. What we can’t do anything about physically, we try to will into “going right”–by expending our mental and emotional energy on fear that it won’t. (Who says “reverse psychology” owes its origin to professional therapists?)

That’s ultimately what worry is: fear on a chronic low-intensity scale, eating away the body with the slow poison of adrenalin overdose. And the Bible’s antidote for fear remains the same: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, New International Version 1984).

“Punishment” is closely related to the idea that we have to make ourselves perfect, rather than trusting that God loves us enough to do the job. Worry is thus a form of self-medicating, and as with most people who prefer their choice of drugs to licensed medical care, its ultimate effect is to make things worse instead of better.

Leave a comment


  1. I’ve heard that all illnesses are psychosomatic. Years ago I read a study that showed broken bones from skiing accidents hear faster than identical breaks from car accidents.

    • Is that simply because the average skiier is in better physical condition than the average motorist?

      I’m not sure about that “ALL illnesses are psychosomatic” part. How do they define illness: do they stop at conditions caused by germ or tumor; include “normal aging” effects such as gray hair and presbyopia; or go so far as to say “you wouldn’t have been hit by that car if you’d helped your brain do a healthier job”? And do they assume that if you think right, you can smoke a pack of cigarettes a day for twenty years with no ill effects whatsoever? I do know at least one person who died of cancer (albeit in her late seventies) despite a lifetime of positive thinking and healthy living.

      Sorry if I’m getting sarcastic here. I would deeply regret it if my post sent anyone on a guilt trip or, worse, gave them one more reason to stress out about not “getting things right.” My whole point that the best thing you can do for your health is not to get into the habit of thinking everything depends on you.

      • keswarts

         /  August 24, 2011

        Make that “broken bones from skiing accidents HEAL faster” and “My whole point WAS that the best thing you can do.” I’m glad this isn’t a copyediting blog.

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