There was a sad story in the media recently about a survivor of 9/11, Marcy Borders, who died of cancer. What was particularly poignant was how, following the tragedy at the WTC in 2001 that she escaped from (captured in an iconic photo), she had been unable to cope and turned to drugs and alcohol in a downward spiral of despair. It seems that she had just managed to turn her life around again, when she was struck by disease and died; what an awful tragedy that just when her life was going well, such a disaster should befall her.
Such tales of tragedy striking when life seems to be so good are not rare in the media. Whenever someone's life is snatched away, the media seems to be full of stories about their wonderful life, their great potential, and how they had so much going for them and to look forward to. Such stories, of course, make the calamity appear even more tragic - and, of course, makes for a far more gripping human interest story. It is natural to feel the loss of someone far more acutely when we think of all they had to live for.
But such stories are fuelling the rise of the 'worried well'. As a private psychotherapist, I am coming across more and more people whose anxiety rises in direct proportion to how well their life is going. When they have problems, when things are going badly, they can cope - it's when everything seem to be slotting together that the panic kicks in and they become consumed by a terrible sense of foreboding that something awful is going to happen.
Some of this is about habit. Some people tend to be natural worriers - which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; people who worry a lot are often very good at making contingency plans and of anticipating problems (of course, too much worry is less helpful). When they have things to worry about, they are in their comfort zone, going over the problems, trying to find solutions, considering what they might do if various scenarios play out. But when there is nothing to worry about, their habitual 'worry' response is unoccupied - and like any habit, it must be fed. This is why some people will worry more when there seems to be nothing to worry about.
There is also the fact that life is naturally made up of highs and lows. Life is not so much like a box of chocolates, as a roller coaster, with peaks and troughs. When we are in a trough, we try to stay positive, telling ourselves that 'this too will pass' and the good times are surely just around the corner. Is it not a natural response then, when things are going well, when we are on the top of the roller coaster (with so much more to lose than when things are going badly) to assume that a big drop is imminent?
The problem arises when we worry so much about the troughs that we feel sure are around the corner, that we are unable to enjoy the peaks. Some people even feel that by worrying, they are somehow protecting themselves against the feared drop coming; they have learned that most things they worry about don't come to pass, so fear that if they take their eye off the ball and stop worrying, they will allow a calamity to creep in and take them by surprise.
When a person is unable to enjoy the highs out of fear for the lows that they feel must inevitably follow, they can probably benefit from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). This will encourage them to challenge their assumptions, test out their learned belief systems and gather evidence that might suggest other hypotheses. Through these techniques, they can learn that worrying does not actually offer any protection (sometimes things they worry about will happen, sometimes they won't), that disaster does not automatically follow the peaks and that enjoying the good times will not leave them vulnerable to tragedy somehow slipping into their lives whilst they let their guard down. In other words, there is no correlation between worrying and disaster striking; good and bad times inevitably come to people whether they worry or not.
So, if you worry more when life is good, it is time to take your anxiety seriously. And that's worth worrying about.