I worry. A lot. About the little things, like whether my kids are coming down with pneumonia, or if we have enough milk left for breakfast tomorrow morning. And about the big things, like whether I will lose any of my freelance work, or whether our house will flood during the next hurricane.
I spend nights up worrying about the even bigger things too. I wonder if one day my kids will live in a world without hate, and I worry that our planet is going to go kaput sooner rather than later as a result of climate change.
Usually, I think of my worrying as one of my worst traits (yes, I worry about my worry, too), and something that I should probably work on eliminating from my life. But recent research points to the idea that maybe being a bit of a worrier can actually be a good thing.
In a paper published this past April in Social & Personality Psychology Compass, authors Kate Sweeney and Michael D. Dooley argue that worrying helps us adapt to some of the more difficult aspects of life, and possibly even protects our health. “A review of the effects of worry revealed that worry is associated with recovery from traumatic events, adaptive preparation and planning, recovery from depression, and uptake of health-promoting behaviors,” write Sweeney and Dooley.
The authors explain that worrying is often an intrinsic motivator for people — meaning that for most worriers, worrying makes them more likely to take positive steps in their lives to stay healthy and make productive choices. “Regarding motivation, worry illuminates the importance of taking action to prevent an undesirable outcome and keeps the situation at the front of one’s mind to ensure that appropriate action is taken,” say Sweeney and Dooley.
I would say that this is true for me. For example, if I fear even a little bit that my kid’s cough has turned to pneumonia, I will most likely bring him to the doctor sooner than later, and if it turns out he’s sick, he will start on antibiotics before things get too serious. The same goes for a whole slew of other scenarios: in my case, the worrying almost always makes me proactive, and able to prevent most potentially poor outcomes.
Sometimes, however, that unrelenting desire to “ward off” potential catastrophes can lead to disproportionate worrying on my part, which can easily take the form of anxiety and panic, both of which I consider highly problematic. The authors also contend that “extreme worrying” has consequences in terms of “depressed mood, poor physical health, and even mental illness,” all of which need to be taken seriously, and discussed with a mental health professional.
But the authors also believe that a healthy amount of worrying can eliminate worry in the first place, before it gets too out of hand. A bit of worrying “motivates productive behavior that in turn reduces worry,” write the authors, adding that it “enhances the effectiveness of goal-directed action by prompting people to focus on obstacles that might derail best-laid plans.”
So does that mean that worrying actually reduces my worrying? Sounds like an oxymoron, but the authors believe that worrying can serve as emotional protection for excessive worriers like me.“Worry can also serve as an emotional buffer by providing a desirable contrast to subsequent affective reactions, particularly for people who are prone to high levels of worry,” they write.
I will say that some of the practices I’ve adopted as a worrier truly do help keep my more off-the-rails worries at a manageable level. For example, if I am worried about losing work, I will become that much productive at work, and end up garnering more assignments than I can even keep up with, which certainly will mitigate my future fears of losing work.
But life is full of variables that even the most top-notch worrier can’t tackle, and that’s where I often run into trouble. In fact, one of the things I am currently tackling in therapy is how to deal with the “worst case scenario” thinking that I have had running through my head ever since I was young. Thoughts about loved ones dying untimely deaths or the world suddenly ending don’t do anyone good, and have always led to out-of-control anxiety symptoms for me.
So maybe it’s all about mindful worrying — finding that healthy dose of worry that keeps you hearty and productive, but being able to recognize when the worry is no longer serving you, getting the help you need to eliminate it from your life, and moving on.