'I Am Worry'

Worry is an American epidemic, but what's fueling this fear?

ByABC News
February 21, 2007, 6:23 PM

Feb. 22, 2007— -- Most people who meet college student Sarah Fortino would describe her as beautiful, smart and articulate.

How would she describe herself? "I am worry. Worry is my life," she said.

Fortino is a constant worrier, and two of her biggest fears are flying and big cities. She confronted both of those fears when she came to New York City, with the help of Dr. Robert Leahy, the author of "The Worry Cure" and the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.

Leahy agreed to meet her plane at LaGuardia airport, where she was still shaking from a bumpy ride.

"I started to feel nauseous," Fortino said. "For a moment, I [felt] like, this must have been what it felt like to be on the flight that went into the Trade Center. I actually made myself feel like what it would have felt like, and I started to panic a little bit."

In her car ride into Manhattan, Fortino was anxious about encountering the noise, bright lights, and general chaos of the city. "I can start to feel, just thinking about [it] right now, the tightness in my chest," she told Leahy.

To help Fortino overcome her fear, Leahy used a therapy he calls "verbal exposure." Because when Fortino is flying, her biggest fear is crashing, he tells her to repeatedly say, "The plane is going to crash."

After she said the words over and over again, her anxiety level began to fall.

"If you repeat the thought over and over and over -- hundreds and hundreds of times -- you'll find that the thought becomes less frightening," he said. Leahy also asked Fortino to escalate the ugly thoughts and actually say, "I want the plane to crash."

"It is terrifying," said Leahy, but he also said it was effective. In fact, he asks his patients to set aside "worry time" every day, in which they can repeat their worst fear, and to learn to "accept uncertainty" in life.

It's important for people like Fortino to seek treatment, says expert Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of "Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition" and founder of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass.

Worrying can have physical effects on the body. Hallowell said, "In fact there's evidence that you can be frightened to death. That you, you can be so worried, so scared that you, you die [of] a sudden heart attack."