We tend to think of worry as a bad thing. As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, I know from experience that most people would like to rid themselves of the annoying tendency to worry. Not only have many books been written--some by us--to help people defeat worry, but about once a week a patient in my office will jokingly offer this suggestion for a worry cure: "Let's just cut out the part of my brain that worries." Worry, it seems, gets a pretty bad rap.
However, worry--which we define as thinking about bad things happening in the future--is one of the most valuable tools that we have in our survival arsenal. When used effectively, the gift of worry allows us to imagine what could go wrong in the future, and then (and this is the important part) take action to prevent these disasters. That's the real purpose of worry. And without it, we'd be sunk.
We are the only creatures on this planet that we know of that can use worry to cope with impending threats. To understand the vital role that worry plays in our survival, we can categorize the threats we face in terms of time. If the threat is immediate--if we find a poisonous snake in our backyard, for example--our fight-or-flight response kicks into action. This is our alarm system.
Not every threat we face is immediate or certain though, which brings us to worry. Worry is more like our radar system, scanning the periphery for possible danger, looking for threats to our well-being that aren't happening right now, but might.
The trick then to making worry work for us is to determine when the signals on our radar are valid and when they aren't. Like an air traffic controller, our job becomes distinguishing airplanes about to collide from clouds in the sky. Making this determination hinges on our ability to differentiate between what we call unproductive and productive worry.
You can think of unproductive worry as characterized by one or more of these three key features: it focuses on events far in the future, it offers no clear course of action, and the threat is extremely unlikely to come to fruition. In other words, we get a signal on our radar screen, but it's useless because it doesn't guide us to take any action to prevent it. Worse yet, the signal represents a threat that has almost no possibility of coming true, or may be so far off in the distance that worrying about it now is pointless. A good recent public example was the worry that surrounded the end of the Mayan calendar (and thus the end of the world). Although that worry was more immediate as the final date approached, there wasn't much action we could take on that one, and--like all the other end of the world prophecies--it was extremely unlikely.
In contrast, productive worry gives us a clear course of action and signals potential threats that are likely to become a reality relatively soon. For example, like many people, you might start to feel some anxiety with the approach of April 15th. Taxes are due, and if that trips your worry radar, the good news is that it would qualify as productive worry. There's a clear course of action you can take--file your taxes. And if you don't, the probability of trouble is pretty high. That's how productive worry protects us.
To determine if your worry is productive, ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my fear likely to occur soon? Since productive worry focuses on the near future, you can evaluate the time-frame of your worry to see if it's productive. Take a look at what you are worrying about and ask yourself how soon will your fear come true.
- Is my fear likely to come true? Next evaluate the probabilities of a threat coming true to determine if a worry is productive. Ask yourself, "How likely is it?" Remember, anything is possible, but how probable is it?
- Is there anything I can do about it? As you evaluate your worry, ask yourself if there are any productive steps you can take to prevent your fear from coming true. This step captures the essence of productive worry.
If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, then it's likely that your worry is productive. Your next step is simple--take action to prevent your fears from coming true. For example, if you're worried about your house burning down in a fire, you can install smoke detectors and buy fire extinguishers. If you're worried about passing an upcoming test, you can read the assigned chapters, review your notes, and have a friend quiz you. Remember, your productive worry is urging you to take action to prevent a potential problem.
That's when worry works.
If you'd like to learn more about productive worry, as well as effective techniques to conquer unproductive worry, please see our book 10 Simple Solutions to Worry.