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What I Love About Worry

Worried looking womanWhat I love about worry is it’s so portable. You can worry almost anywhere about almost anything! Whether it’s sitting on the couch in your own living room downing red wine and throwing back chocolate chips cookies, tossing and turning in bed at night like a rotisserie chicken, or quietly sitting at your desk at work—worry can be with you always. It’s kind of like The Force in that way.

Although worry is perfectly human, it was not until fairly recently, in the 1980s, that researchers started to focus on worry. Before then, worry was considered just part of good, old anxiety. It wasn’t until researchers explored different types and aspects of anxiety, like the anxiety present in test anxiety and insomnia, that scientists developed a larger interest in worry. Researcher Thomas Borkovec, PhD, described worry as “intrusive cognitive activity” that seems completely out of the subject’s control to stop—as anyone who has experienced the distracting, stomach-squeezing, thought-churning, nail-biting bear hug of worry would have gladly told him.

At this point, worry is a candidate as a possible perpetrator of anxiety. For example: You’ve spilled red wine on your new, white couch. This is an anxious situation. After you’ve dealt with the spill, you continue to dwell on the accident, noting your lifestyle of being such a klutz, asking yourself why are you sitting on your couch drinking red wine and eating chocolate chip cookies when you should be running 10 miles, working on your screenplay, or helping the old and infirm. An anxious situation that could have been over and solved in the time it takes to spray stain remover continues to dog your brain with unhelpful, anxious chatter, and perpetuates anxious feelings into the night. As you toss and turn, the executive functioning area of your brain—the place that helps you keep one foot in the reality of good decision making and reality testing—needs rest. So your executive functioning gives up and goes offline. That’s when the worry is allowed to run wild until you wake up exhausted. But worry is not all bad—just mostly.

Worry is about the future. It’s anticipatory. And on a good day, worry can be helpful. It helps parents, bus drivers, surgeons, and film producers anticipate and tick through what’s needed next: What could go wrong? What’s Plan B? That’s the problem with worry. Once in a while, it’s helpful. It gives us the comforting illusion of control. So worry as a tool for good thinking becomes reinforced in our brains—because it sometimes works. This can lead to some interesting decision-making choices.

Of course, not all worry is created equal. (Nor are all worriers.) Is it nature or nurture? Probably both. Some people are inherently better at it than others. To be a competent worrier takes some imagination and smarts. You have to be able to project your mind into the future and simultaneously weigh, and react to, various possible outcomes, some potentially disastrous, of any given event. The trick is learning to live in harmony with the force of worry.

Next month: Living with uncertainty—the only thing we can count on.

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  • Haydn

    May 14th, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Sorry, but I hate to see that thinking that worry is a portable thing is a good thing.

    that’s such a major downer to me, to know that something so vile can be carried around with me all the time.

    No thanks- I will find something else to carry with me to ruminate on

  • j andre

    May 14th, 2013 at 11:12 PM

    worrying is like a frenemy.it can cause tension but also keeps us on our toes.there have been numerous occasions wherein i have benefited due to worry.balancing its goods and bads would be awesome but that is one skill Im sure not many have mastered.

  • Abigail

    May 15th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    At least it can help to keep you focused.
    If there is no worry, then I guess for some people there is no plan.
    But for those of us who do worry a lot, then I can honestly say that we are always planning, anticipating what happens next.

  • Jana F

    May 18th, 2013 at 5:38 AM

    I am not one of those people who uses worry as their reason for being. That seems like a sad existence to me, so I have always tried to move QUICKLY past the worry stages onto something that I can see as more psotive. I don’t see that I am making any forward progress in my life when I allow it to be controlled by things and situations that I have little control over myself.

  • Jen

    May 21st, 2013 at 11:12 PM

    I believe awareness the major key factor.Ability to realize you are in that worried rapid cycle, you are able to step out and realize your snowballing you can refocus and use the tools that you know works for you.(after 20 yrs of Dr’s diagnosing based on what I allow them to know/ not know , manipulation, pill taking, hiding… . ) ) Finally learning “at this moment its up to me. to determine what’s best way to handle this exhausting, irrational, race

  • Mus Mus

    October 1st, 2013 at 1:20 AM

    Interesting that I found the article after sitting here until 3:30 in the morning because my brain won’t turn off with worry.

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