Worry versus Planning?

I recently attended a very interesting talk on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), given by Dr. Melisa Robichaud, an expert in anxiety disorders. GAD essentially is a disorder of worry. The core symptom is excessive anxiety and worry about many topics, and the person suffering from this disorder experiences the worry as very difficult to control. Often, people with GAD also experience muscle tension, restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and other symptoms. Having GAD doesn’t just mean you’re a worrywart, but that your worrying feels uncontrollable and interferes with your life in important ways. You might think you know a lot of people with GAD, but keep in mind that mild worry and anxiety don’t fit the bill. GAD can be an extremely distressing and painful condition, causing serious problems in relationships, work, and other areas. During her talk, Dr. Robichaud explained that people with GAD often engage in a lot of planning, have rigid routines, and do things to prevent their worries from coming true. The idea is that, if they don’t plan, something uncertain and distressing might happen, and they might not be able to cope with it.

As I was listening, I started to worry that I might have GAD! I’ve never thought of myself as a worrier, but over the past decade or so, I’ve become a planner. I plan my breakfast and lunch the night before, often making these meals (for the most part) before I go to bed. I have an elegant but somewhat complex to-do/reminder system to organize myself and avoid forgetting important tasks. I set yearly, monthly, and daily reminders in order to avoid having to set reminders when the same yearly (or monthly, etc.) task comes down the pike later on (e.g., doing taxes). When I go on work trips with other people, I am nearly always the dinner organizer, and I make reservations weeks and months in advance. I usually pack my suitcase several days before travel, write emails that I know I’ll need to send a few weeks in advance, and the list goes on. I don’t worry as I’m doing these things, nor do I think I worry much about what might happen if I don’t do these things. This is why I think this is planning and preparation rather than worry-related. The distinction can be hard to make, as worriers are typically planners, and why would you plan unless you have the thought (or worry) that you’re either avoiding some kind of inconvenience or making things better for yourself or others? For the most part, I spend very little time worrying about anything, but I spend a fair amount of time planning. There is one exception, however. I do worry that I might have a lot of work to do and become overwhelmed or tired. It’s not what you’d call an explicit, obvious worry, in that the thought rarely crosses my mind that, if I don’t prepare, I’ll be too busy and won’t be able to handle it. It’s more under the surface, and I think it’s related to what I affectionately call fundamental laziness. Fundamentally, I simply want things to go smoothly, and I seek stability almost wherever I go. Basically, I just want to relax! So, even though all that planning and preparing seems contrary to laziness, it is in the service of laziness, and until they come up with “generalized laziness/excessive planning disorder,” I think I’m in the clear. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.