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Renée Watson runs her own Oxford based science consultancy WATS.ON, where she boasts the delicious title of ‘Head of Explosions’.

The Big Bang

Renée Watson

I used to look really young. The sort of young where people would ask my sister and I whether we were twins – and she is 10 years younger than me. Then, almost overnight, I caught up. I got pregnant and seemed to immediately look my actual age. Since then, I am sure ageing has accelerated at an incredibly unfair rate, and the main culprit? Worry.

Motherhood has developed and honed the “skill” of worrying to the extreme. I worried about falling pregnant, staying pregnant, giving birth, protecting my child, feeding my child, being a “good” parent, milestones, not doing work well enough, not doing mothering well enough, not doing wife-ing well enough. Argh!

My children are a bit more robust now, and as that intense baby worry has faded, I seem to have replaced it with worry about my latest “baby” The Curiosity Box – my work creation.

One day, I’m sure I will worry less (cue raucous laughter) but in the meantime, what impact is all this worry actually having on my body?

Worry is a complex emotion that is hugely influenced by a tiny part of our brain (smaller than a pea) called the Habenula. This unassuming collection of cells controls the expectation of negative events, is linked to sleep-wake cycles, pain and stress responses. The Habenula has been a part of the brain of animals for so long it is thought to play a role in survival – by tracking previous negative experiences to enable us to better predict and avoid an impending negative event.

The evolution of worry is also related to the evolution of intelligence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people who worry are more intelligent (as much as I would like to think so). Instead, there is evidence that the parts of the human brain related to intelligence have evolved alongside those involved in worry and anxiety. Coming back to survival of the fittest, what this suggests is that people who anticipate and avoid dangerous events are more likely to live to see another day. So, worry may well help us to survive but it is a doubleedged sword. Worry is also linked to ill health, and particularly the early onset and severity of heart disease.

There is conflicting evidence on the impact of worry on the gut and immune system, although there is compelling support for the impact of stress on these systems. For me, worry and stress are not easy to separate – not just in the way they feel, but also in the biochemistry of the brain. Worry triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain in the same way as other forms of stress. There is also research showing that people who are experiencing high levels of worry are more prone to addictive and negative behaviours such as gambling. You are likely to only see these health effects after prolonged periods of worry.

But what about my transformation from bright-eyed youth to crowfooted Yoda? On a molecular level, worry and natural ageing look very similar. Add both together and ‘wham!’, ageing is accelerated both inside and out. Now that’s something to worry about.

- Renée Watson