Could Worrying Be Good for Your Health?
Being a worrier may have unexpected benefits
Posted Dec 27, 2020
We’re often told that we shouldn’t live in fear or let worry consume us, and there are definitely merits to this advice. If worry becomes overwhelming, it can limit our ability to fully enjoy our lives and make it difficult to accomplish our goals.
But there is such a thing as a healthy dose of worry, recent research suggests, especially when we are faced with real dangers. In a study of over 300,000 adults in the United Kingdom, participants who considered themselves worriers fared better health-wise than those who worried less: Over a multi-year period, they had a lower risk of dying from a range of conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and accidents.
The researchers proposed a potential explanation for these differences: Worriers may be more likely to notice physical problems and promptly seek medical attention for them, increasing the chance of detecting and treating diseases in early stages. In addition, they may engage in more health-promoting behaviors like exercise and healthy eating in an effort to stave off negative health outcomes.
Other negative emotions, like anger and tension, didn’t have the same benefits as worry in the study, presumably because they don’t increase health vigilance in the same way. Worry may be an unpleasant emotion, but it can motivate us to act in ways that protect ourselves and others.
Other research has also found health benefits associated with worrying. For example, one study found that smokers who worried more about the negative health effects of smoking were more likely to quit within eight months, though this was only the case if they were also high in self-efficacy, meaning that they believed they had the ability to quit if they chose to. Another study found that people who not only understood the risk of skin cancer but worried about it were more likely to wear sunscreen as a preventative measure.
Despite these benefits, worrying about health can be counterproductive in some circumstances. For example, we might fear a behavior that is in fact safe or continue to worry about a symptom that has been found to be benign. And chronic, unconstructive worry, health-related or not, can disrupt sleep quality and increase the risk of stress-related illness. Excessive worry is also a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
So what distinguishes helpful worrying from the less helpful kind?
Constructive worry tends to be more solution-focused and time-limited than unconstructive worry. The feeling of worry alerts us to a potential danger, which prompts us to think through how to address that danger. For example, if you read an article about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and become concerned about how much time you spend sitting during the day, you might consider different ways to increase your activity level, like scheduling walking breaks, or consulting with your physician.
Sometimes we worry about things that are largely out of our control and don’t necessarily have practical solutions, like an upcoming medical test or the unpredictability of a loved one's health status. These are normal worries and are not automatically unconstructive—they may still motivate us to take actions that help us or others cope, even if we can’t resolve the problem or control the outcome.
Telling ourselves simply not to worry is unlikely to make those feelings go away. But we can choose to respond with understanding and comfort, rather than going down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios. Self-compassion, meditation, and reaching out to others are all ways of soothing a worried mind while still honoring the seriousness of our concerns.
Weiss, A., & Deary, I. J. (2020). A new look at neuroticism: Should we worry so much about worrying? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(1), 92–101.