Coping with worry

Graeme Gillespie discusses what worry is, and positive ways to cope with feelings of worry.

For people living with cardiomyopathy, it can be hard to be open about difficult thoughts and feelings. Discussions with healthcare professionals can be dominated by a focus on physical symptoms and treatments, with various factors getting in the way of openness about emotional well-being.

Our emotions are very personal and sometimes it is hard to discuss them in a busy, time-pressured clinic appointment. But avoiding the subject can be a barrier to getting help,  which can keep difficulties festering. One type of difficulty, which we all experience at times, is worry.

  • Would you describe yourself as a worrier?
  • Do the people closest to you often tell you to ‘stop worrying’?

It is not unusual for people living with cardiomyopathy to worry about it some of the time. Ill health, such as cardiomyopathy, can kick-start worrying. What are these tablets doing to me? What if my symptoms get worse? What will it feel like if my ICD fires?

Partners and family members can also struggle with cardiomyopathy worries.

  • Is he doing too much?
  • What if she makes herself ill?

But what can you do if worry gets a hold of you, won’t let go and is spoiling your life? A useful first step is learning to understand what worry is and why it can affect us so much.

What is 'worry'?

Worries are closely linked with anxiety, which is related to fear. And although it is a sensation we usually want to avoid, fear, just like pain, is there to protect us. In many ways, fear and anxiety are our friends. Fear alerts us to something we see as dangerous which is actually present in our environment. Anxiety and worry come along when we think about something potentially threatening, dangerous or harmful. Worries are thoughts about something threatening or catastrophic happening in the future, often starting with ‘What if….?’ questions. As we are evolved for survival, our instincts push us towards focusing on possible threats. Worry can certainly attract our attention and not easily let go. So worry is just a type of thinking. Sometimes it can help us remember there is something important we must do or attend to.

But often we may be worrying about something bad which hasn’t happened or which we can’t do anything about. Our thinking only really helps us if it leads to helpful actions or emotions. Good questions to ask are:

  • How useful is this worry?
  • Is this worry just an unhelpful thought that goes round my head like an unhelpful bee in the bonnet?
  • Is the worry telling me that I need to do something?
  • Is it a thought I should keep paying attention to?

When is worry helpful?

If you or a loved one is living with cardiomyopathy, how can you tell what sorts of worry are helpful or unhelpful? It can be quite difficult to know whether or not we should be worrying. For example, is a racing heart a symptom I need to report, or just a sign of being anxious, which I can safely self-manage?

A sensible strategy is to check it out with someone you trust in your healthcare team. If you are worrying about a change in your symptoms, that could be helpful too because you can act on it. You could discuss the change with a trusted healthcare professional.

A worry about what to do if your internal defibrillator (ICD) fires could also lead you to ask for advice. If you are worried about changes in your medication, again you could ask to have the reasons explained. If possible, try to let your healthcare worker know early on in a consultation that there is a worry you would like to ask them about. That way they know to make some space for it somewhere in the meeting.

A quotation which sums up the effects of unhelpful worry is by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who said;

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes….most of which never happened.”

Anyone who has struggled with worries will know what that can feel like.


Graeme Gillespie is a consultant clinical psychologist at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust.

This information is taken from an article in our magazine 'My Life'. You can sign up to receive the magazine.

©Cardiomyopathy UK. 2017.