The Surprising Usefulness of Worry
... and the high cost of chronic, unnecessary worrying.
Posted Oct 24, 2016
Where would we be without our worries? How would the dishes get done, the children get fed, and our bills get paid? How would the floors get swept, the homework be completed, and birthday cards mailed on time?
Worries have long been critical to our survival; they aren’t merely instruments of torture. Our ancestors who took leisurely strolls to enjoy the pleasures of a beautiful fall morning were devoured by saber-toothed tigers—and their genes were lost. But our paranoid, there-could-be-danger-around-any-corner, defender-of-the-family-tribe ancestors lived to procreate, passing on to us an ever-present protective mode of worry.
Some degree of worry is actually good for us: It can help break us out of denial, and it can drive us to prioritize our tasks. Most important, worry is designed to be an initial response. Worry is the first step in problem-solving. It kickstarts our effort to find solutions to problems by triggering our analytic process—evaluate the current situation; generate response options; choose among them; select one; and then implement it. When this process works well, we're able to conclude our analysis with a message like, “I’m worried about finishing this project, and now I’m going to take action. This is how I’m going to get it done—I have a plan.”
That’s the usefulness of worry. We denigrate the process when we operate as though worry itself is the problem-solving process. So we name the problem over and over again without productively addressing solutions. We say, “I’ve got to get this done. If I don’t get it done, I’ll be in trouble. I’m not sure I’m going to make it.”
During stressful times—if our steady income seems threatened, if an unfamiliar physical symptom persists, if a son begins driving or a daughter begins dating—most of us fret a little too much. It’s as though worry becomes a talisman to ward off the trouble, the mistakes, and the dangers. We believe that if we worry enough, we will come up with ways to prevent bad things from happening. We feel threatened, so we operate as though all this thinking will protect us from committing any errors of judgment, and that it will ensure that we make the right choice. Then, once we decide on a plan of action, we worry as a way to verify that it’s the right action, which really becomes a process of second-guessing our decisions.
But we have it wrong. Worry isn’t supposed to solve problems. Its job is to send problems to the front of our minds so we know what to fix. And it causes us to think more about how things might go wrong than about how to correct difficulties. After all, one way to avoid trouble is to imagine ourselves in that trouble. Imagine you are late for an appointment and driving in a rush. As you approach the traffic light, it turns yellow. You momentarily consider taking the risk of running through the light, because that will save you precious moments. Then an image pops into your mind of things going really badly for you and others in the middle of that intersection. You immediately act and make a decision to stop. That’s worry at its best.
But what happens if we don’t place our worries within the problem-solving process?
We can pay a high emotional cost for unnecessary worry, and when our worries pop into our minds too frequently, those thoughts hurt us. Worry leads to anxiety. The more we worry, the more anxious we become—whether it’s about work, family, financial issues, or illness. If we don’t address this type of worry and find ways to control it, we continue to be anxious.
And worry absolutely inhibits our performance. During any project, we should focus our attention on the task. But when our attention keeps getting redirected toward unhelpful worry, we become self-absorbed: “How will I do? What if I fail? That will be too painful for me. I must avoid failure!” These are compelling thoughts and we all have trouble disengaging from them. But if you want your inner resources available for the activities you value, you need to find a way.
Yes, worry serves an essential function by helping us solve legitimate problems, but anxious worrying serves the opposite function.
In my book, Stopping the Noise in Your Head—and through this blog, as an extension of it—we will study problematic worry and how we limit our successes in service of this dominant challenger. I will also show you how to overcome that challenge.
Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.