Why we worry

I spend a lot of time worrying. About work, money, my friends, my family, the future. It’s not the kind of paralysing worry that prevents me from getting anything done. It’s more akin to background noise which I got pretty good at ignoring. But it’s still there. It makes it harder than I’d like to fall asleep, and it sometimes hinders my decision-making because I focus on what could go wrong instead of what could go right. Worrying means bad sleep, fatigue, irritation, and being generally unhappy. If it’s so bad for us, why do we worry?

Despite all our efforts, we have very little control over our lives. We put in the work, but the future is uncertain. We cannot guarantee outcomes based on effort only. We could get sick, lose someone, miss an important meeting. The number of imponderables is infinite. All we can do is try our best. But being aware of our lack of control often isn’t enough to get rid of the background noise. So we keep asking ourselves: what if…?

why we worry

Worrying is rewarding

Why is it that such an anxiety-inducing mental state is so common? Why do we worry so much? “Each time we worry and nothing bad happens, our mind connects worry with preventing harm” explains Dr Seth Gillihan, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. We unconsciously think that, after all, it was a good thing to be worried. Because, as a result, nothing bad happened.

Research shows that excessive worriers have beliefs about the positive consequences of worrying, which reinforces their worrying behaviour. A study assessing positive beliefs about worry looked at four main factors which may explain why we worry.

  1. Problem solving and motivation. We feel like worrying may help us be more aware of a situation or better prepared to face it. It may help us come up with more alternative ways to solve a problem, which in turn may ensure we avoid the most negative consequences. We also sometimes see worry as a catalyst to act and get things done—basically doing things that we may not have the courage to decide to do otherwise. In short, we see worry as a tool to adopt more helpful or productive attitudes, making us responsible, prudent people.
  2. Protection from negative emotions. Worrying feels like it may help us be less disappointed if something bad actually happens—this way we would be less upset, guilty or caught off guard, since we predicted that particular potential outcome.
  3. Worry as a positive personality trait. Worrying about other people may confirm—in our own eyes or the eyes of others—that we are a sensitive, considerate, caring person. We may even feel like people around us would be disappointed if we didn’t worry about them. We basically conflate worrying with being a good person.
  4. Magical thinking. Finally, we may think that the act of worrying itself can reduce the risk of something bad happening. Or, the opposite—we think that by not worrying about something, it’s less likely to happen. It’s almost superstitious.

Remarkably, the problem solving and motivation factor alone accounted for 32% of the variance in scores in the study. While the authors noted the relatively small sample size, they thought it was worth highlighting the apparent importance of this factor.

It’s particularly relevant for people who are problem-solvers. There is a very fine line between problem-solving and worrying. While problem-solving is about applying creative strategies and mental models to specific problems, worrying is about letting your mind dwell on problems without a systematic approach, often leading to anxiety and unease.

Staying up at night, your mind racing, imagining all of the potentially negative outcomes of a decision—this is worry. Sitting down with a notepad, pen in hand, ready to sketch a mind map and identify potential solutions—this is problem-solving.

why we worry

Self-awareness and mindfulness as a remedy for worry

So, how do you manage worry? Can you even get rid of it? Well, first, the answer is no—a regular person would struggle to completely get rid of worry, except if they become Matthieu Ricard, a 71-year old Tibetan Buddhist monk, whose brain plasticity has been shown to be significantly altered after years of mindfulness training. But, even if you don’t plan on moving to Nepal and dedicate your life to mindfulness training, there are a few strategies you can apply to feel less worried over time.

  • Awareness. The very first step is to become aware of your worry. Notice when you’re worrying, and instead of trying to change the way you feel, simply study the feeling. Why do you worry? What’s the actual root cause? Just take the time to recognise and understand what your mind is up to.
  • Embracing uncertainty. While we have very little control over many events that impact our lives, this should not prevent us to live our lives to the fullest. Even with second-level thinking, you will not be able to predict all the potential consequences of each and every one of your actions. And this is fine. Uncertainty is an inherent part of being alive.
  • Calming exercises. Worry, stress, and anxiety are often interlinked. In order to calm your nervous system, try one or several calming exercises. Breathe slowly, stretch, or meditate. Take a long bath or read a good fiction book. Go for a run. Watch a movie. While you should not run away from challenges, taking your mind off things for a specified amount of time can be a great way to bring back some calm to your thinking process.

Dealing with worry often comes down to facing your fears. Fear of failure, fear of being judged, fear of a better option. Coming to grips with our lack of control can be frightening. But focusing on the present is extremely powerful. Instead of spending all of our mental energy on what could happen, we can spend it on what we can make happen, now. By not worrying about the future and focusing on the present instead, we become agents of change and gain a tiny bit of control over our own lives. Sure, we can’t predict the outcomes, but we can control our output.

Of course, leaving our worries behind takes practice. It’s in our nature to worry. And sometimes, worry creeps on us when we least expect it. But it’s worth it to try and become aware of it, embrace uncertainty, and work on ourselves to calm our racing minds. The process itself can make us more caring, more productive, and more creative. In the wend, we may even end up learn how to worry well.

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