Anxious? Worry a Lot? Here’s How It Can Be Good For You!

There can be overlooked benefits to some emotionally debilitating experiences.

Posted Jul 15, 2017

Anxiety is rampant in our society. As a psychiatric symptom, it brings many people into psychotherapists’ offices, and/or into seeking medication relief. The same is true for chronic, often pervasive worrying about life situations, especially those you can’t really control or have impact over.  But two recent, unrelated studies provide some helpful information: that anxiety and worrying can be beneficial...if you know how to “use” them.

For most, chronic or situational anxiety is an alien, unwanted state of being; something to quell if not eradicate. It can have debilitating impact on relationships, work, and life in general.  At the same time, many people are plagued by chronic worry – different from anxiety in the sense that worrying is more of a pervasive sense of indecision, rumination, and pondering – over something that may or may not occur, that you might have to deal with; or that lies outside of your control.

In the study that looked at anxious people – those diagnosed with anxiety disorder – researchers wondered what differences might exist between anxiety that’s aroused by fearing a negative outcome of some action or situation versus anxiety triggered by fearing just taking a risk

The research, from University College London, indicates that it’s primarily the fear of taking risks that’s most prominent in anxious people.  That is, “…anxious people are more reluctant to take risks than non-anxious people,” said the lead author, Caroline Charpentier. She added, “It suggests that we should focus on encouraging anxious individuals to increase their tolerance of risk rather than dampening down their sensitivity to negative outcomes.” The research was published in Biological Psychiatry.

The findings point to how anxiety can be helpful – by helping anxious people to take steps that gradually strengthen tolerance for taking risks in those areas that provoke anxiety. The caveat, of course, is that the study appears to have looked at anxiety as a cognitive issue, benefited by new learning. And that ignores the many unconscious emotional issues that inhibit taking risks, even when the anxious person desires to do so.  But combining the insight provided by the research with good therapy to deal with underlying emotional roots of anxiety can be a helpful path towards greater psychological resiliency and health.

Similarly, the other study looked at how chronic worrying may also have a positive, beneficial role in increasing psychological health. The research found that some forms of worrying may be beneficial. That is, it can activate motivation to address a problem, and – according to the researchers from the University of California, Riverside in this media release – help heal from trauma and depression

The lead author Kate Sweeny points out that worry may support preventive and protective behavior in relation to avoiding unpleasant events. She explains that an upside of worry is that it can aid recovery from traumatic events, adaptive preparation and planning, recovery from depression, and partaking in activities that promote health.

She adds that the research suggests that people who report greater worry may perform better in school or at the workplace if they seek more information in response to stressful events; and then engage in more successful problem solving. That is, a major positive benefit of worrying is being more tuned in to situations that require action. The study was published in  Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 

Again, I think the research is limited in that here are different levels of “worry” among different personalities and among the kinds of emotional conflicts people experience that have impact. But Sweeny acknowledges that “…both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation, but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing… worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”

And that’s the key to utilizing the positive potential of worrying -- provided that it’s combined with good therapeutic help to enable worriers to build those positive benefits. So, consider how you might make positive use of your tendencies towards worry or chronic anxiety… if you can recognize their potential upside.

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© 2017 Douglas LaBier