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Anxiety

Why Telling Yourself "Not to Worry" Doesn't Work

An argument with a worry is an argument you can't win.

Key points

  • Worry is an attempt to solve an issue that has an uncertain, and possibly negative, outcome.
  • Trying to stop worry will only increase the anxious thoughts, perpetuating a state of fear.
  • To stop worrying, one needs to accept worry, and then focus pragmatically on solving the issue the best way possible under the circumstances.
Andrea Piacquadio/pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/pexels

It’s the easiest advice in the world to give, and it’s perhaps the hardest advice in the world to follow: “Don’t worry about it.”

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? “Don’t worry about it.” That’s the kind of clichéd phrase we toss out in conversation a dozen times a day without thinking: “Take it easy,” “keep an eye out,” “go with your gut.” Such platitudes are basically meaningless; they’re also basically harmless; and sometimes they can give you a little nudge in the right direction.

But for the life of me, I cannot think of a single situation in which being told “don’t worry about it” actually helped me to, you know, stop worrying. When I’m worried, it usually means that I’m afflicted with nagging, unhelpful thoughts and anxieties about an uncertain situation I am powerless to control. And when I try to interrupt those thoughts, I inevitably discover that, perversely, my efforts just make things worse. Honestly, being told not to stop worrying often strikes me as a little insulting. If I could just “stop worrying" — if it were that simple — I would have done it already.

So why can’t we just stop worrying? Why is this little piece of well-meaning advice so uniquely unhelpful, even destructive?

What Exactly Is Worry?

To answer this question, we must first define “worry.” In "Preliminary Exploration of Worry," Borkovec et al define worry as follows: "[A] chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable; it 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."

An important point here is that worry is a combination of cognition and affect, a process that engages both our intelligence and our emotions — and the problem with trying to interrupt it is twofold.

Cognitive Elements

Intellectually, worry causes us to involuntarily repeat unpleasant and unproductive thoughts, thoughts that do not contribute to effective problem-solving but cyclically feed on themselves. And trying to silence a recurring thought is a lost cause, thanks to a cognitive glitch known as the "thought suppression paradox."

In The Imp of the Mind, a seminal work on intrusive thoughts and OCD, psychologist Lee Baer cites the "White Bear" problem — that if you ask someone to not think about a white bear, then, of course, images of the bear will consume their thoughts. When confronted with an unwanted thought, such as a persistent worry, when "we try instantly to suppress it," then "we are our own worst enemy — in reality, we are beginning an endless cycle of failed thought suppression, a rebounding of more intense thoughts, and then another unsuccessful attempt at thought suppression.”

So when you tell yourself not to worry, you aren't going to silence it — you're engaging the worry in conversation, inviting it to explain itself further. And an argument with a worry is an argument you can't win.

Emotional Elements

Emotionally, worry is most directly related to fear; more specifically, what affect theorists define as the "affect" of fear, an evolved set of automatic psychological and physical functions that emerge to guide our behavior when we are confronted with anxiety. Unfortunately, affect is not always appropriate or helpful.

In his book on affect theory, Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman writes, "After our emotional responses have been triggered, we may consciously realize that we need not be emotional, and yet the emotion may persist.” And — just as when we try to stop a thought — trying to repress a persistent emotion merely heightens and complicates it, even creating "new emotional responses [that] may be inserted over or mixed with the emotions already generated… we often have affect-about-affect, emotional reactions to the emotion we initially feel. We may become angry that we were made afraid, or we may become afraid about having become so angry."

Together, the cognitive and emotional elements of worry explain why consciously trying to stop worry only makes it worse.

Worry causes anxious, repetitive thoughts — but if you concentrate on stopping those thoughts, you are actually directly contributing to them. Worry develops from and perpetuates a state of fear — but forcing yourself to suppress a negative emotion can instead magnify it, or activate other negative affects like anger or despair. The command to "stop worrying" is a psychological paradox, inherently self-negating, because the command itself is an expression of (and ultimately an expansion of) your worries.

Working Around Worry

Since we cannot stop worrying through conscious effort, the best course of action is to concentrate on working around it. We need to accept worry, acknowledge the stressors and limitations it has imposed on us, and focus pragmatically on achieving the best possible outcomes under the circumstances. Instead of trying to stop worry, treat it like a headache, or a sprained ankle. Yes, it hurts, and it's going to mess up your day, but no matter what you do, it's not going away immediately, and fixating on it will probably make it worse.

Instead, determine the treatments that will help most with recovery, and focus on accomplishing whatever you can while waiting to heal. You can't run a marathon on a sprained ankle, but you can still get work done around the house. In the same way, don't try to solve the big problems when you're already consumed by worry; accept the worry as a temporary affliction, and refocus your efforts as best you can within these temporary limitations.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2021.

References

Lee Baer, The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. Penguin Plume, New York, NY, 2002. pp. 69-70.

T.D. Borkovec, E. Robinson, T. Pruzinsky and J.A. DePree. "Preliminary exploration of worry: Some characteristics and processes." Behaviour Research & Therapy, 1983, 21, pp. 9-16.

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. Holt Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2007. pp. 38, 69-70.

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