In light of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking about the role of worry in our lives. As anxiety, uncertainty, and social isolation ramp up, we need to take care of our mental hygiene as well as our physical hygiene.
From panic shopping to media obsession, there is no shortage of worry going around. This new situation led me to become curious about how worry impacts our mental health.
Is worrying helpful?
Worrying can be helpful or harmful, depending on the type of worry. It is helpful when focused on practical short-term actions, but it is harmful when focused on abstract ideas about the future that lead to repetitive thoughts and inaction.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means and how you can keep your worrying in check.
What is Worry?
“Worry is an aversive emotional experience that arises alongside repetitive unpleasant thoughts about the future.”
In simple language, worry is unpleasant emotions and thoughts about the future. These thoughts begin to act like a broken record, replaying the same lines over and over.
The emotion is usually fear, and the thoughts generally involve catastrophic scenarios—for example, a pervasive fear regarding the thought of potentially being infected by a virus.
Having this worry may be helpful, or it may be unhelpful, depending on the extent of the worry and the actions that follow. Let’s take a closer look at the research on helpful forms of worry.
Helpful Forms of Worry
A study titled The Surprising Upsides of Worry found that worrying acts as a motivator to take helpful precautionary measures. The researchers state:
“It also triggers efforts to mitigate the consequences of bad news, motivates productive behavior that in turn reduces worry, and enhances the effectiveness of goal‐directed action by prompting people to focus on obstacles that might derail best‐laid plans.”
People who worry more are more prepared and less likely to face risks in many areas of life.
A 2014 study found that people who worry more about skin cancer are more likely to wear sunscreen. A 2006 meta-analysis of the evidence found that women who are more worried about breast cancer are more likely to get screenings. Lastly, a 1990 study found that people who are more worried about getting an injury in an automobile accident are more likely to wear a seat belt.
In addition to motivating helpful preventative measures, worry can also act as an emotional buffer to adverse outcomes. This means you are less disappointed when things don’t go well. According to the researcher who conducted the study on the Upside of Worry:
“If people’s feelings of worry over a future outcome are sufficiently intense and unpleasant, their emotional response to the outcome they ultimately experience will seem more pleasurable in comparison to their previous, worried state…”
Worry lowers expectations about future outcomes, leading to better emotional states when things go better than expected.
Although worry has its benefits, it needs to be kept in check. Let’s take a closer look at the research on unhelpful forms of worry.
Unhelpful Forms of Worry
Unhelpful forms of worry are quite common and can cause an upward spiral of negative thoughts and uncomfortable emotions, leading to paralysis.
In an in-depth review titled, Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought, Edward R. Watkins states:
“…worry characterized by a concrete level of construal is constructive, whereas worry characterized by an abstract level of construal and negative intrapersonal context (e.g., low problem-solving confidence) is unconstructive.”
This finding means worry is productive when focused on practical actions and unproductive when worrying about large scale issues without a focus on concrete actions.
Unhelpful forms of worry are focused on repeatedly thinking about issues beyond your control. Since you cannot do anything about issues beyond your control, your mind pretends to be busy by worrying. Worrying feels productive when it is doing nothing to solve the problem.
Mary Schmich illustrates this when she states:
“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Beyond not being useful, this type of worrying can be detrimental to your health, according to WebMD:
“Chronic worrying can affect your daily life so much that it may interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep, and job performance. Many people who worry excessively are so anxiety-ridden that they seek relief in harmful lifestyle habits such as overeating, cigarette smoking, or using alcohol and drugs.”
When worry becomes pervasive and harmful to areas of your life, it may be helpful to consider whether you are using worrying as a way to feel busy. Although it gives the illusion of control, this type of worrying takes away your ability to take control.
When worry hijacks your brain, your fight or flight response turns on, reducing activity in the higher evolved prefrontal cortex, the area associated with control over one’s behavior. When worry spirals out of control, it leads to intense fear and paralysis.
In addition to limiting one’s ability to take practical actions to reduce the worry, it narrows one’s ability to move toward any valued directions in life.
Luckily, if you find yourself falling into this form of unhelpful worry, there are things you can do to regain balance.
How to Cope with Unhelpful Worry
As described in my previous article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, you can use the following to more effectively cope with unhelpful forms of worry:
- Accept what you can’t control
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present moment
- Remove limiting self-definitions
- Live by your core values
- Take action toward what matters
Take a look at the full article if you are interested in exploring each of these areas in-depth, in addition to learning some practical exercises designed to gain a healthy perspective.
Worrying can turn you into the slave of your thoughts and emotions. It can also motivate you to take necessary preventative action. Some worry is better than none, but too much worry can cause more harm.
Helpful forms of worry consist of short-term concrete actions, whereas unhelpful styles of worry include abstract catastrophic thinking leading to paralysis.
If you find yourself engaging in unhelpful forms of worry, it is also unhelpful for someone to simply tell you to stop worrying. If it were that easy, psychologists and addiction counselors would not exist.