Personality Can Make Worry Disorder Worse


Worry a lot? How much your fretting affects your life may depend on whether you have a withdrawn personality or a hovering, "helicopter" style.

At least that's true of people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which describes people with persistent, debilitating worries. A new study finds that personality style interacts with GAD, and symptoms can be quite different depending on personality. An "intrusive" person, for example, might express their worry by calling a travelling family member every 10 minutes to be sure they haven't crashed their car. A "cold" person, on the other hand, might express their worry toward the same relative by criticizing their planned route.

The findings are important, because how people express their worry may add to their struggles with GAD, said study author Amy Przeworski of Case Western Reserve University. The "cold" criticizers might alienate their loved ones, for example, while the "intrusive" helicopter types could exasperate friends and family members.

"The worry across all these different people is the same thing, but how that worry manifests itself looks really different," Przeworski told LiveScience.

Worrying types

About 5 percent of the population will experience GAD at some point in their lives, and studies show that twice as many women as men are affected. Older people are at higher risk for GAD.

Przeworski and her colleagues had 130 volunteers with GAD fill out personality questionnaires before entering into a GAD treatment program. The questionnaires aimed to rank people on two scales: Cold to warm and dominant to submissive. A cold, dominant person would be categorized as having "cold GAD," meaning they are the critical type who expresses their worry through judgment. A warm, dominant person would have "intrusive GAD," meaning they are the helicopter type.

Meanwhile, someone submissive and cold would be classified as "nonassertive," meaning when they worry, they withdraw from a situation or relationship. Someone who was submissive and warm would fall under "exploitable GAD." These people stay involved in a situation or relationship, but are passively worrying without expressing their worries to others. [Read: Why Women Worry So Much]

The results, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in May, showed that 27.7 percent of GAD patients were intrusive worriers, while 31.9 percent were exploitable. About 19 percent were unassertive, while 21.8 percent were cold.

Relationship work

The study suggests that therapists helping GAD patients should ask them about their relationships and work with the patients to improve their expressions of worry.

"We tend to take a really symptom-based approach," Przeworski said. "We want to reduce the worries, help sleep, but for the most part, therapists aren't thinking about how the worry and the relationship problems go hand-in-hand … We also need to help these folks in their relationship problems."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.