What 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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