The Whereabouts of Worry; Perseverative Cognition and the Left Front Lobe

stress imageIn a longitudinal stress study by the American Psychological Association, more Americans than ever before reported struggling to cope with rising stress levels. 1 in 5 reported a level of stress perceived to be beyond their capacity to cope.

Chronic stress, especially when long term, can impact adversely on health. Untreated, stress can lead to, or aggrevate a number of existing conditions such as –

  • cardiovascular disease
  • digestive problems
  • obesity
  • insomnia
  • depression and anxiety

Stress impairs the immune system and impacts our ability to recover. We can be stressed until we are broken.

Modern life

Modern life has created  a speedier. more accessible reality. Faster does not mean fairer. A study by the London School of Economics and Social Policy found a new social inequality was created in the search for work. Young  people who did not have constant access to a fast broadband connection were at a severe disadvantage. According to researchers, young people who could not respond to a job advert as soon as it was advertised online had “low or zero chance of success.”

Other modern stressors –

  • Mobile technology: enables communication but shackles us to be available, accessible and always “on”. Links have been found between mobile phone usage and rising anxiety levels, especially in the young and those already experiencing anxiety.
  • Living alone: 16% of adults in the UK live and eat alone – that’s 9,408,000 living without the support of a family unit. The figure of single occupation has nearly doubled during the last 40 years from 9%.
  • The career scrapbook The world of work has changed. The concept of career has evolved into a ‘portfolio’ of work opportunities for the lucky and a scrap book of short term contracts for the less so. Each new opportunity demanding us to shape shift for each new employer. On average 11 employers will recruit us during  an average working life.
  • Homes and rentals Home ownership is an unlikely concept for many. Financially squeezed into a lifetime of renting, a large section of the working population are working for the cognitive rewards of just not being unemployed.

The most vulnerable are those unprotected from the sharp edges of a changeable economy and an unstable workplace; the young, the poor and those with a disability.

“Millenials” (18-24) reported the highest stress levels. They proved too the most likely to engage in negative, dangerous coping activity. Young people without family, without financial support, face the biggest trials.

The UK government is proving to be a harsh task master. In the UK, benefits for young people and those with a disability have seen the biggest cuts. Today sees further announcements to young people’s benefits if they are “NEET” or “Not in Employment, Education or Training.”

The future for those young people without recourse to emotional and financial support looks fraught, not bright.

It comes as little surprise that the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the largest threat to global health in 2030.

In the New England Journal of Medicine “Global Mental Health,” researchers identify the most vulnerable groups as the young who do not have easy access to mental health services, the old who are not adequately catered for in terms of dementia care or elderly mental health and those in developing countries. The authors warn of “intense suffering.”

Subject to the vagaries of scale, depression can impair an individual’s natural ability to manage their everyday responsibilities.

At its very worst, depression can incapacitate, hospitalize and lead to loss of life through suicide. Almost 3,000 lives are lost each day according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Mechanics of Worry.

Some people make decisions quickly, expertly, like cognitive knee jerks. Others ruminate, incapacitated by the myriad of options that a decision offers.

A study by Sussex University into the inner workings of chronic worry has pinpointed the site in the brain as the left front lobe, the exact same spot as complex thought or “systematic processing.”

A team of Sussex psychologists analysed 30 years of cognitive research to breakdown the components of worry finding that the part of the brain used in complex thought processes is also activated in cases of “perservative cognition” – chronic, debilitating worry found in severe cases of depression.

Depressed, anxious people experience “effortful” thought and  trigger systematic processing, non-anxious people have a more “heuristic” process – a quick, effortless “short cut” approach to decision making.

Unlike animals, people can replay distressing past and potential future images. Often a component of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress “perseverative cognition” involves rumination, negative thoughts and excessive analysis of situations.

People who don’t suffer from anxiety have a much easier ride than depressed people when making decisions and imagining the future – this new discovery of the exact whereabouts of worry goes in some part to explain why.


Clinical Psychology Review
Systematic information processing style and perseverative worry

Affects of worry on the body:

Depression: A Global Crisis PDF report

Stress in America:

The brain system that stops worriers just going with the flow
Sussex University:

Image: RGB Free Stock.
Thanks to Serpintino