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Why Worrying Is Unhelpful, and One Thing You Can Do Instead

Learn the brain basis of worry and how to overcome negative thinking cycles.

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Worry can be thought of as the cognitive component of anxiety. We tend to worry when we aren't sure what's going to happen but we think that we may experience a negative event, such as a failure, loss, illness, or injury. Worry “represents an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain but contains the possibility of one or more negative outcomes; consequently worry relates closely to the fear process” (Borkovec et al. 1983, 10). When you feel anxious, it's more in your body—your heart may start beating faster, or your breath may shorten. Worry, on the other hand, is more in your head. It's a kind of mental anguish that most of us experience, but few know how to overcome.

What is the function of worry?

Research on worry suggests that it may reduce physiological arousal and negative images by keeping you in the verbal realm (Borkovec and Hu, 1990). Worry is left-brain-focused and may keep you fixated on the details, preventing you from seeing the big picture of a situation which may be more scary. Some researchers (Borkovec et al., 2004) suggest that worrying may be a way of avoiding the bodily signs of anxiety and stress (such as your heart beating rapidly) or negative mental images related to your stressor (such as the image of having to sell and move out of your house). Worry can also give you the illusion of control over future outcomes. Some people believe that if they stop worrying and relax, they'll be caught unawares by some devastating event.

What is the downside of worry?

Worry can magnify stressors by bringing up more and more negative possibilities. One negative thought leads to another, and you start feeling more and more stressed. Worry makes you feel as if the worst is already happening (our brains don’t always distinguish between imagination and reality). Short-term worry can be productive if it helps you plan and solve problems. Worry can also be helpful if it leads to new perspectives on the problem. But often worry turns into rumination.

Rumination is persistent and repetitive worry, in which you revisit the same information repeatedly without finding any new answers. Rumination goes beyond trying to solve a problem or deal with a stressor. Your thoughts go from "What negative outcomes are likely to happen and how could I prevent them?" to things like "Why am I such a loser? Why did I make such poor decisions that led to this situation? Why can’t I cope? What’s going to happen if I keep feeling stressed like this?" The word “rumination” describes what a cow does when “chewing its cud”—chewing, swallowing, regurgitating, and then chewing it again. In the same way, we mull the same information over and over when we ruminate, without finding new perspectives on our stress.

How does worry work in the brain?

Worry and rumination are the result of a “feedback loop” between your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex. When your amygdala sends out its alarm signals, your prefrontal cortex analyzes the alarm (worry) and then, instead of calming down your amygdala, comes up with other things that might go wrong. This creates a vicious cycle of escalating and self-perpetuating alarm and worry between your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex. Research using brain scans shows that rumination is associated with increased amygdala activity during the processing of emotional stimuli (Siegle, Ingram, and Matt 2002).

What are the psychological effects of rumination?

Research shows that rumination is associated with increased depression and anxiety over time (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000). If you ruminate when you’re feeling down about a problem, you’re likely to feel even worse. Ruminators want to understand why the stressor is happening and its meaning for their lives, but they often end up focusing on the past and blaming and criticizing themselves in unhelpful ways. In one study (Davis et al. 2000), looking for meaning in the loss of a spouse or child was helpful only to the extent that a meaning (such as “It was God’s will,” or “It was a wake-up call”) was actually found. Continuing to look for meaning without finding any just made people feel more helpless.

Rumination can also keep you stuck and get in the way of taking action to solve the problem. Overthinking can make it difficult to commit to a decision or course of action. Ruminators may come up with ways to combat stress (such as work harder or do more exercise), but they’re less likely to actually implement these solutions. Rumination can bring up feelings of shame that make you want to hide and run away, rather than dealing actively with the stressor. When people ruminate, they’re likely to drink more alcohol or binge to take their focus away from the shame and self-criticism. Rumination can become a thinking trap that justifies avoidance and not taking responsibility for solving the stressful situation or living up to day-to-day responsibilities (such as cleaning the house or taking care of kids) when you’re stressed.

Can rumination negatively affect your relationships?

Rumination can also have negative consequences for relationships. In a study of bereaved adults (Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis 1999), ruminators were more likely to reach out for social support after their loss, but they reported more friction and that their friends and family gave them less emotional support. Their friends and family members seemed to become frustrated with their ongoing need to talk about their loss and its negative meanings for their lives even many months later. If you keep talking about the same stressful situation over and over, without taking action, people may start viewing you negatively and thinking you should try harder to move on or do something to solve the problem. Many of us have a friend or family member who keeps berating the state of their relationship or who can't seem to get over an ex. You probably get tired of giving them the same advice over and over when it is never followed.

What is one thing you can do instead of worrying?

One of the most helpful things you can do instead of worrying is problem-solving. Problem-solving means defining the problem in a way that you can do something about it (e.g., "How do I prepare for a possible loss of income?" or "How can I learn to accept that my ex has moved on?"). Once you have a defined problem, you can generate some possible solutions and think through the likely consequences of each (e.g., "What is most likely to happen if I do X?"). Finally, you can implement your favorite solution, whether it involves taking action, discussing the situation, finding out more information, or working to accept something you cannot change.

This article is partially based on an excerpt from my book The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017).

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