This week has been a bit worrying. I’m not talking about the endless ennui of living in the age of the internet, or the troublesome resurgence of internet Nazis, although those are both not ideal. No, according to headlines, we are all giving ourselves mental health problems because we are worrying too much, thinking too much about responsibility, and just generally being too afraid of what might happen for our own good.
Apparently, the only thing to fear is fear itself, because fear itself causes mental health problems like anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Media sources from the Daily Mail, with their headline “Don’t be so hard on yourself…it could lead to OCD and anxiety” to the Economic Times with “Worrying too much about being responsible? You’re more likely to develop OCD” have all been screaming that we are heading down a dangerous path. A new study, according to these headlines, has revealed that the secret to good mental health is to worry less.
Except, of course, that this is nonsense. The study didn’t find that at all.
There are many things to fear in life, but fortunately for all of us there is no reason to worry about worrying just yet.
The study itself was “an examination of the relation between responsibility and both obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms and worry/generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms”, which sounds really fancy and scientific until you read the methods section and realize that the “examination” mentioned here was an online survey of undergraduate students in America.
The researchers basically put a questionnaire up online asking university students a series of questions related to feelings of and worry about responsibility, as well as some self-reported measures of anxiety and OCD symptoms. They then plugged all of these measures into a big statistical model and found that certain types of responsibility correlated significantly with the mental health symptoms. From this, we get the conclusion that there may be an interrelationship between thoughts of responsibility and OCD/anxiety.
Which is, of course, not even vaguely close to what the headlines spewed only hours later.
Now, I’m not here to litigate the value of online surveys. There’s a time and place for that — twitter at 2am — but let’s just say that drawing ANY conclusions from a self-selecting, self-reporting online survey is a dicey business.
As epidemiologists say, if your sample is hopelessly biased it doesn’t matter how good your survey is*.
But even taking into account the fact that this study probably didn’t mean all that much, the media reporting was, simply put, shockingly bad. The study looked at American undergraduate students, and found that there was a weak correlation between self-reported feelings of responsibility and mental health symptoms. Some things it didn’t look at:
- OCD or anxiety. This may sound counter-intuitive, but the study didn’t look at diagnosed illness, just at self-report on some survey items. You can’t diagnose people via online survey, so this study didn’t look at actual illness at all.
- Causal mechanisms. Again, you can’t tell much from a single online survey. Did the worry about responsibility precede the symptoms, or do the symptoms cause worry? It’s a classic chicken/egg/OCD problem, with no way to tell what’s causing what.
- People who aren’t American undergraduate students. This is very simple: if your sample only includes a small, select group, you can’t just take the results and apply them to everyone in the world. This study only looked at US undergrads, so those are the only people it really applies to. More research needed indeed!
- “Being too hard on yourself”. The study measured indexes of personal responsibility, which is a fancy way of saying that they asked people how important responsibility was to them. That’s not really the same as the line that most media reporting used.
The only thing that you can really say from this study is that undergraduate students attending US universities who have symptoms of OCD/anxiety are also likely to report worrying about responsibility when you ask them in online surveys.
A bit wordier than “Worrying causes OCD”, but a lot more true.
Most headlines on this study were wrong. It’s impossible to know if there’s a causal connection between worrying and anxiety/OCD or whether these things are simply correlated in American undergrads from this study. We also can’t tell if these results mean anything to anyone who isn’t studying a undergraduate psychology degree in the US, because the sample was so limited as well.
Ultimately, it seems obvious that worrying is linked to anxiety and OCD. These are conditions that are characterized by pathological worrying: by worrying so much that it causes problems in your life. But it’s impossible to know, based on this research, whether the worrying causes the disease or the disease causes the worrying.
If we’re realistic about it all, it’s probably a mix of the two.
So don’t worry too much about worrying. It’s probably not ideal for your mental health — worrying rarely is — but it’s also probably not going to give you a mental health problem. There’s also no good evidence that beliefs about personal responsibility cause OCD in the first place, nor that you can get rid of OCD by telling people not to worry so much.
The main thing to take away from this research is that if you are worrying a lot, it might be worth going to see a psychologist, especially if you are doing an undergrad psych degree. Anything further than that is a wild guess at what the results might mean.
The media was wrong.
Worrying isn’t giving you OCD.
*Technically they don’t say this, they say that systemic biases likely influence data collection in studies with an uncontrolled selection process, making it hard to trust the results, but it sounds better my way I think.