You’ve felt it. That anxious and fearful feeling in the pit of your stomach, a fast, racing heartbeat and those pervasive ‘what if’ thoughts that cycle over and over and over again. In simple terms, you’re worrying – and why shouldn’t we? New information floods us every single moment – with plenty of unknowns to process. Family, career, the news or our health all can result in a worried mind.
So, if you’ve ever been told to stop worrying (and we know how aggravating that is) or worried that you may be worrying too much, there’s new research on its surprising upside. “The Surprising Upside of Worry” by psychologists Kate Sweeney and Michael Dooley along with Kate’s recent interview on Think, KERA, may just put your worried mind at ease.
Although there is much debate “…a simple definition of worry is an aversive emotional experience that arises alongside (and often due to) perseverative and unpleasant thoughts about the future.” Thoughts and feelings about what can, will, may or may not happen in the future can lead to high levels of chronic stress and its associated health issues, heart disease, crippling depression and mental illness.
But, what if, in all this bad news there’s an upside to worry?
Can it motivate and even serve as a buffer for our mental health?
Surprisingly, when managed, worry can have definite health benefits and possibly even save your life.
Worry as a Motivator
When it comes to our health, we hear of the “risks” every day. We know the risk of not exercising, smoking, eating too much red meat, not doing self-breast exams, etc. But from this research, knowing “risk” does not equate to worry in motivating positive action for a positive outcome.
Take skin cancer, for example. We all now know the risk – too much sun is damaging and increases the risk for skin cancer. But what motivates one to take action to prevent it? Research shows that if you, for example, have a strong family history of skin cancer or have ties to someone who has experienced its negative effects, you’re more likely to take steps to prevent it by wearing daily sunscreen, doing body self-checks and seeing a dermatologist once a year than someone who hasn’t had that experience.
Those unpleasant feelings of past experience combined with thoughts about future “what ifs” motivate you to action. When feeling a sense of worry, one is more likely to seek out desired actions to reach a good outcome, or at least feel as though you are lessoning the feeling of a future out of your control.
Worry as a Buffer
Can worry serve as a buffer preparing us for an undesired outcome?
Apparently, yes it can. Worry, so unpleasant, when it finally disappears, can buffer the blow of bad news. Why? You have probably taken action to prepare yourself for the worst. You may have even planned your next moves, the next doctor’s appointment for a second opinion, or exploring new treatment opportunities, etc. This action relieves anxiety and therefore, your worried mind buffers the news.
Worry Out of Control
Can you worry too much?
According to researchers, taken to the extreme, repetitive thoughts that characterize worry may have even more serious health consequences, as excessive worry is associated with avoidance of preventive health behaviors such as cancer screening.
So, yes, those thoughts and feelings can fatigue, drain and paralyze us. When worry stops motivating and being useful, interfering with sleep or enjoying relationships, then it may be time for clinical intervention. Always consult your healthcare provider when worry feels out of control.
While some people are simply more prone to worry, too much worry endangers our well-being, mental health and happiness which then predicts health and longevity.
Take Away: Learn how to ease worry!
Are there steps to take to stop worrying before your mind spirals out of control?
Here are some non-professional advice from the field – AKA, self-described worriers – to help you ease worry:
- Prepare before you get there. Think of ways to immediately distract yourself when you begin to feel its paralyzing effects.
- Ask yourself: What is the worry motivating me to do?
- Take a first step to relieve the anxiety.
- Take long, deep breaths to center yourself for clear thinking.
- Recognize each recurring thought and seize it; write it down to judge its importance.
- Analyze the situation by asking yourself: Is this an “elephant problem” or an “ant problem”?
Will I even remember it in a week? One year? 10 years from now?
To help yourself stop worrying so much, try to stay present in the moment. Exercise, especially yoga or tai chi to focus and deep breathing for stress reduction. Pray, meditate, and list what you are thankful for in the present moment and remember, as a wise grandmother once shared, “70% of what I spent time worrying about never happened.”