When Is Worry Helpful?May 01, 2023
Don't worry. Be happy!
Ah, those illustrious words of Bobby McPherrin (it's a classic 80's song, in case I'm dating myself here).
"In your life, expect some trouble. but when you worry you make it double."
Wise words set to a catchy tune.
Just Don't Worry
I'd argue (and often do) that worry is a bad mental habit. And like most bad habits, they can be broken...if you are so inclined, though it's not quite as simple as "just don't do it." If it were, no one would worry excessively.
And yet, there is a kernel of truth to the sentiment of just don't worry. While you can't really flip a switch in your brain to turn worry off, you can actually choose whether you want to indulge in that mental process or not.
That's where a lot of people get stuck.
Why We Worry
Let's back track a bit to fully understand and appreciate the complexity of worry and why it's hard not to do it.
The Evolution of Worry
Our minds evolved essentially to keep us alive, and worry is a part of that process. Worry is the mental anticipation of things than could go wrong. It's identifying potential problems or bad things that could harm us in some way.
You can see how having this capability could be quite helpful. If our ancestors could anticipate (aka, worry) that a predator might be lurking in the brush, then they could avoid getting eaten. It was advantageous to expect bad things, as opposed to positive outcomes or events, because doing so allowed our ancestors to sidestep danger, living to pass along their genes.
Thus, we are the decedents of worriers.
And now our minds have gone a bit rogue, worrying about things well beyond predators and physical safety. They worry about all kinds of other possibilities that could be bad in some way (though they often miscategorize what is truly bad and good. How many initially "bad" things ended up being blessings in disguise?).
You might point out that our mind's ability to predict bad things could be helpful because if we can anticipate problems, we can prevent them.
But that line of thinking is what gets people stuck in worry.
Where Does Worry Lead?
Let's dive deeper into it. What often follows worry - the ever so intriguing "What if...?" - is either spiraling or planning, the first of which is absolutely not helpful...ever. The latter is potentially helpful, but we'll come back to that.
Spiraling happens when we hop on the Worry Train and follow it all the way down the tracks. It starts with a little "what if," then snowballs into catastrophizing. All of sudden our minds jump from Point A to Point Z...and we're listening to it like it's an inevitability or a capital T truth.
So much of what we worry about never comes to pass...and not because our actions directly prevent it but because it was just a hypothetical that did not come to fruition.
Besides, when has spiraling EVER led to something positive or helpful? No one feels better while spiraling. It wastes time and energy. And it doesn't lead to anything productive.
Planning, on the other hand, can sometimes be helpful.
Let's return to that belief "if I can anticipate a problem then I can prevent it." If that is, in fact, true, it stands to reason that planning is a helpful action to take.
Sometimes it is.
But sometimes all of that planning is actually just an attempt to feel more in control. It gives us something to do to help us feel like we have the power to affect change, to prevent heartache and strife, but do we? Or is it just a way of trying to feel more secure, more safe, and less anxious or stressed in the face of uncertainty?
I mean, when has anything ever gone exactly according to plan? And how much time and mental energy have you dedicated to creating plans that you never even needed?
I bet your own experiences demonstrate, as mine certainly do, that you can not anticipate and plan for every potentiality. Or, perhaps you can anticipate some things, but they are out of your control to stop or change. Again, worry-fueled planning gives you something to do, but it's ineffective.
When is Worry Helpful?
Anticipating problems and coming up with a game plan can be helpful at times, but only under specific circumstances. It becomes really important to differentiate between what I call productive and unproductive worry. Productive worry may be worth your time and energy, while unproductive worry, you guessed it, is not.
Productive worry focuses on 3 things:
1. Actual problems, as opposed to hypothetical ones
2. That are relevant right now, as opposed to at some distant point in the future
3. That you can control, as opposed to ones that you have no say in
If it's not a real problem, for today, that you can control, it's probably unproductive worry.
Many people who seek out therapy for worry (and probably lots of "worrywarts" who struggle on their own) recognize that excessive worry is a problem. It makes them feel anxious, tense, unsettled. They want to stop.
Yet they struggle to do so. Why?
It's because, deep down, there is a belief that worry is helpful.
Expanding on that are typically adjacent beliefs like:
- If I worry enough, I will be able to prevent the bad things from happening.
- If I don't worry and something happens, it will be my fault.
- If I don't worry, I am being irresponsible.
Lies, I tell you! Here's why.
All overestimate two things:
1. The accuracy of our prediction capabilities. (Don't trust me on this one? Consider this. How many times have you heard the word "unprecedented" in the last 3 years? 7 billion people on the planet, all with brains designed to anticipate problems, and yet how many "unprecedented" events have we been through?)
2. Our ability to control things. While we may want to control or dictate how things will unfold, so much of what we focus on via worry and planning is actually outside of our circle control. All of the variables that contribute to how things unfold are simply not up to us. You can lament that they should be, but denying reality as it is isn't any more helpful than unproductive worrying.
Fine. Then How Do I Stop Worrying?
I wish it were as easy as just don't do it, flip the worry switch to off, and go on your merry way. The reality, though, is it takes more work.
First, recognize the mental process of worry. If it starts with a "What if," it's a worry. Period.
Even if it's "But what if this isn't a worry?"
What if = worry.
Other signals might be the "Oh nos" or the sneakier predictions, the mental statements made with certainty - "This is going to happen. Then this is going to happen." That's still worry if you are anticipating future negative events. And as convincing as those thoughts might sound, they are predictions, not facts. No one has a crystal ball.
Once you recognize the mental process as worry, call it that. Then choose what to do.
If it's a productive worry - an actual problem, for today, that you can control, then decide when you are going to do some strategic thinking, planning, and problem-solving.
Notice that word "strategic." That means you are intentionally sitting down to tackle the issue. This is a very different experience than distractedly worrying and halfway coming up with a plan while also having a conversation with someone or watching your kid's soccer game.
Strategic thinking - productive worry - happens intentionally, on your time table, and has a designated end - a solution.
If you find yourself circling over the same territory repeatedly, rehashing plans, then you have ventured in unproductive worry territory. More time will not get you more control, more certainty, more peace, or more guarantee of how the future will go.
At this point, you must directly challenge those metacognitions - beliefs about worry. Get real with yourself. Is worrying about this actually going to make a difference? Does it just feel more comfortable to worry because that's what you've always done or because that's what your mind wants to do?
Choose to disengage from the mental process of worry and, instead, focus on something else, preferably the present moment. Come back to what's real right now and ask yourself, "How would I rather spend my precious time? Worrying or doing XYZ?"
Today concludes Stress Awareness month. This is your last chance to snag your Stress Management mini-course, chock full of information, techniques, exercises, and tools to design your own highly personalized stress management plan.
If you're interested in making this tool available to your entire team or organization, reach out or reply to this email! Let us know the right person to talk to, and we'll make it happen.
If this doesn't seem like something you're interested in, just don't worry about it.
"Don't worry. Be happy."
- Bobby McFerrin
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
Build psychological strength right from your inbox!
Get actionable information and tools to build psychological strength at home and at work.
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.