- Worry is intended to alert you to dangers, so you can plan to avoid or prevent them or figure out how to cope.
- Unhelpful or excessive worry results from overestimating potential threats and underestimating coping ability.
- Helpful, adaptive worry is accurate, motivates you to take appropriate action, then goes away.
Worrying can be helpful and adaptive–or unhelpful and disruptive. When is worrying about something helpful, when isn’t it, and how can you tell?
This post discusses the “three A’s of adaptive worry.”
Let’s start with a key question: Why do you worry? The answer lies in how the brain works.
A special area of your brain, the amygdala or “reacting brain,” is designed to notice, remember, and react to threats or dangers. Because its job is to protect you, it reacts whenever it receives a message of threat.
The panic response is activated when your "reacting brain" thinks you are in danger right now. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, preparing you physically, emotionally, and cognitively to run or fight. (You may also respond by freezing if you are overwhelmed by a traumatic memory or have no way to run or fight.)
Worrying occurs when the "reacting brain" thinks you might face a threat or danger sometime in the near or distant future. It encourages you to worry so you identify the threat. Worry is intended to alert you to likely dangers, so you can plan to either avoid or prevent them or figure out how to cope.
For better or worse, the brain has a built-in capacity to worry. Viewed in a certain light, the ability to worry is humanity’s "superpower."
Worrying about problems before they happen can lead to creative problem-solving and new solutions. It has helped the human race survive.
So yay! You have a "superpower."
Unfortunately, it comes with a drawback. Don’t they all? Your "reacting brain" may overestimate potential threats and underestimate your coping ability, resulting in excessive, unhelpful worrying.
Worry can be like the smoke alarm that saves your life by alerting you to an unseen fire. Or it can be like an incredibly annoying smoke alarm when it goes off because the toast burned.
When should you listen and act on worry? When is worry adaptive?
The three A's of adaptive worry
Adaptive, helpful, and effective worrying has three hallmarks, they are accurate, appropriate, and go away. I call them the “three A’s of adaptive worry”:
- The worry is accurate. Accurate worries are consistent with facts, logic, and evidence. For example, if you worry about the brakes failing in your car when the brake warning light comes on, your worry is accurate. It is supported by facts. For example, Amira only worried about something going wrong with her car when a warning light illuminated. When she worried, the worry was accurate. On the other hand, Jonathan always worried that something would go wrong with his car, even though his car was only a few years old, was well-maintained, and had never had any problems. The facts did not support his worry.
- The worry leads you to take appropriate action. Amira’s worry prompted her to get her car’s brakes serviced soon after the warning light came on. She took appropriate action. In contrast, Jonathan’s worry wakes him up at night. In response to his worry, he Googles “catastrophic car accidents.” He calls the mechanic about every noise or rattle. He takes the car into the shop every few weeks even though his mechanic tells him nothing is wrong. These are not appropriate actions.
- After you take action based on your worry, it goes away. After Amira got the brakes fixed and the warning light went out, she no longer worried about her brakes failing. Her worry was fact-based and accurate. She took appropriate action and, having solved an actual problem. The worry went away. In contrast, Jonathan’s worry returns over and over. He repeatedly worries that his mechanic has “missed something.” He keeps looking for signs of problems and needs to be reassured repeatedly.
When you start to worry about something, take a step back. Look at the worry objectively. Ask whether facts justify the level of worry. Is this something other people worry about to the same degree? Adaptive worry is accurate and reflects reality.
If facts and logic agree that there is something to worry about legitimately, take appropriate action to avoid or cope with the problem. For example, start job hunting if there are layoffs and you worry about losing your job. Sometimes worry is doing its job.
Having taken appropriate action, you should stop worrying. The worry should go away.
For more information about coping with anxiety, worry, or panic, read the "Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide."
McMahon, E. (2019). Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide. San Francisco, CA: Hands-on-Guide.