The Power of Prime

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What, Me Worry? Why Worrying Does More Harm Than Good

Worrying just makes you miserable.

Worry is a natural part of the human condition. It has historically played a vital role in our survival and it helps us cope with many of the challenges we face today. At the same time, worry that is too intense, too frequent, and too unrelenting can definitely cut down on your happiness and enjoyment of life.

We all experience worry. We know that nagging feeling that something is wrong and the persistent anxiety that it produces. But what precisely is worry and why do we worry? Interestingly, thefreedictionary.com notes that “The ancestor of our word, Old English wyrgan, meant ‘to strangle.’ In the 16th century worry began to be used in the sense…‘to assault verbally,’ and in the 17th century the word took on the meaning ‘to bother, distress, or persecute.’ It was a small step from this meaning to the modern definitions ‘to cause to feel anxious or distressed’ and ‘to feel troubled or uneasy.’”

Worrying is obviously not a pleasant emotion, but it is actually an essential, normal, and instinctive emotion that has been hard-wired into humans to help us survive since we rose out of the primordial muck. We worry about something because we perceive it as a threat to our existence and worry causes us to focus on it and protect ourselves from that threat. Back in the prehistoric days, carefree cave people, though probably a very fun bunch, were killed by hostile tribes or eaten by wild animals because they didn’t worry about or focus on the potential threats. Cave people who worried, though probably not the life of the party, survived these threats and passed their genes on to future generations. So, worry has been keeping us alive as a species since the dawn of humankind.

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Let’s face it, real and present dangers to our health, well being, and livelihoods do exist and you want to be aware of them and take the necessary steps to protect yourself from harm. You want to take reasonable precautions against illness, injury, and accident. So clearly, some form of worrying has adaptive value, the goal of which is to recognize and remove those threats and safeguard yourself from those unnecessary dangers.

Unfortunately, worry can morph from that healthy, practical form of concern and vigilance to a preoccupation with perceived threats that are incredibly unlikely (e.g., nuclear war) or not particularly threatening (e.g., genetically modified foods). These worries can cause you to obsess so much on these low-probability, low-consequence occurrences that they interfere with your worrying about high-probability, high consequence concerns and prevent you from enjoying your life. And it is these worries that can, returning to the original Old English meaning of worry, metaphorically strangle you. So, basically, worrying has been making us miserable since we began walking upright, yet it has also, paradoxically, ensured our survival.   

Unhealthy worry—when it goes beyond concern and reasonable motivation to protect yourself and makes you miserable—is a complex emotion that isn’t easy to wrap your arms around. It involves negative and obsessive thinking, doubt, physical anxiety, and fear. This type of worry is actually a symptom of other problems that becomes a problem in itself.

Unhealthy worry comes from the emotional baggage you acquired as a child and a deep, often unconscious belief that you won’t be able to protect yourself:

  • Insecurity (“I live in a threatening world.”)
  • Perfectionism (“If I make mistakes, I will be a failure.”)
  • Need for control (“If I lose control, I am in danger.”)
  • Social comparison (“People will think I’m a loser.”)
  • Pessimism (“The world is filled with dangers.”)
  • Low tolerance for stress (“How can I protect myself if I’m all stressed out?”)

And recognize that these types of baggage aren’t black-and-white (i.e., you either have them or you don’t); rather, we all carry some baggage around with us from our upbringings and we all worry to different degrees. The question, though, is whether our worrying is healthy and adaptive or unhealthy and maladaptive. The way to tell which worrying you have is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you worry about things that are not real or immediate threats?
  • Are you more anxious than relaxed?
  • Are you more unhappy than happy?
  • Do you have difficulty enjoying yourself because you worry so much?
  • Are you unwilling to take reasonable risks?
  • Do your worries interfere with your normal activities? 

If you answered ‘no’ to the above questions, then you’re likely a healthy worrier, so keep doing what you’re doing because you’ll be sensitive to real threats, do what is reasonable to live a happy life, and you won’t drive yourself crazy. However, if you responded ‘yes’ to the questions, then you are probably an unhealthy worrier and you’ll want to take some steps to relieve yourself of that unnecessary burden.

Unfortunately, there is no wonder pill that will magically relieve you of your worrying (though there are, admittedly, anti-anxiety drugs that may help). There are, short of medication, some practical steps you can take to reduce the burden of worrying.

The best place to start is to address the cause of your worrying. If you can figure out what precisely you are worrying about, then you’re in a position to find a solution to the cause of your worrying. In the short term, you can also increase your awareness of what the most common sources of worry are for you (e.g., work, family, relationships). If you understand your worries, they can become, well, less worrisome. You can also look for pre-emptive solutions to the causes of your worrying. For example, if you know you worry excessively about deadlines at work, you can better prepare for the deadlines and be sure to complete your work well in advance.

Another thing that can cause the volume of your worrying to go up several notches is to worry about worrying. You can make yourself even more miserable by thinking that you are the only one in the world who worries about the things you worry about. If you can accept that worrying is just a normal part of life and everyone does it, then you can keep the volume of your worrying to a more manageable level.

Sometimes there is no immediate solution to the worrying (e.g., waiting to hear whether you got a job you had applied for) and you just can’t get your worrying out of your mind. In this case, the best strategy is to distract yourself the best you can from the worry. Whether reading a book, watching a movie, hanging out with friends, exercising, or what-have-you, if you’re focused on other activities, you’re bound to worry less. Even better, if you can do things that produce an emotional experience diametrically opposed to worrying, namely, anything that makes you feel positive, happy, excited, or relaxed, you will counter the negativity and anxiety that accompanies worrying. This is no panacea, but it can provide you with a beneficial respite from your worries.

In the long term, you can explore the deeper causes of your worrying. If you can directly “unpack” your baggage through reading, seminars, or counseling, you liberate yourself from the heart of your worries. Admittedly, this process can be emotionally difficult and time consuming, but the rewards are powerful and will last a lifetime.

Or, you can take the now famous, though somewhat simplistic, advice of the singer Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry. Be happy.”  

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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