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Why do we worry?



Dr Fran Meeten discusses current research into the factors that contribute to excessive worry.

We all worry, but some of us experience very high levels of anxiety, and in these cases people find themselves worrying about something for far longer than is functionally useful, which can prevent them from getting on with daily life.

It is this point that is at the heart of some of the research we have been doing as part of the Mood and Anxiety Research in Sussex (MARS) group. In Professor Davey’s lab, we have been looking at the factors that contribute to excessive worry. This aspect of our research has led us to ask “what information are people drawing on when they decide to continue with (or stop) an open-ended process such as worrying?".

One theory that we have been examining as an explanation of excessive worry is the ‘mood-as-input’ theory [1]. In this case the clue is in the name! Mood-as-input theory examines how our current mood influences our decisions about when we stop worrying. Worrying is often described as a “what if?” thought process about future events. We know from research done in our lab that when we ask people to create “what if?” responses to a worry scenario, the number of responses they create depends upon the mood they are in and the type of goal they use when they are worrying. People who experience excessive worry, and generate lots of responses in our “what if?” interviews, report being in a negative mood when they begin to worry and report having strict goals in relation to their worrying. The goals that worriers bring to their worrying are often performance focused, meaning that they believe it is important to consider all possible outcomes to their worry scenario, or continue to worry until they feel that they have done as much as they can to solve the problem. Mood-as-input theory suggests that people use their current mood to assess whether they have achieved their task goals. In the case of worrying, the negative mood signals that they have not progressed toward their performance focused worry goal – so they continue to worry.

Once we know which factors drive excessive worry, we can begin to think about how we can modify these to reduce worry.  There are a number of reasons why worriers may adopt performance focused goals.  We now know that worriers often report worrying to be a useful process, so they hold positive beliefs about the utility of worry. Furthermore, many people who worry excessively often struggle to tolerate feelings of uncertainty and so try to reduce their uncertainty by setting out to consider all possible outcomes to the worry scenario, which results in excessive worrying. We know from lab work that when people are in a negative mood, their worry bout is longer when using a performance focused goal than an alternative goal. One of our recent research projects (in collaboration with Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust) has been to look at the performance focused goals that people use when they are worrying and examine whether people can change these goals. However, our recent pilot work [2] indicated that just teaching people about the interaction between negative mood and their worry goals reduced worry in self-reported high worriers. Given these promising results we plan to build on this research to develop a freely accessible, online worry intervention for those experiencing high levels of worry. 

To find out more about mood and anxiety research in Sussex please visit the MARS website.  


  1. Meeten, F.  & Davey, G. C. L.  (2011). Mood-as-input hypothesis and perseverative psychopathologies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1259-1275.
  2. Dash, S. R., Meeten, F., Jones, F. Davey, G. C. L. (2013). Socialisation to the mood-as-input model as a method for reducing worry. Manuscript in preparation.