Some worry is normal. Sometimes we are preoccupied with one or more thoughts depending on what is going on in our lives. It is not uncommon to experience a sense of unease before taking on a new project or entering unfamiliar situations. For example, entering an unknown setting will cause a feeling of nervous anticipation or a sense of dread. This is consistent with an argument proposed by John Dewey that humans think of extreme opposites where things are either good or bad.
What is worry? The American Psychological Association (APA) states, “Worry is a state of mental distress or agitation due to concern about an impending or anticipated event, threat, or danger.”
Although worrying may seem pointless, it serves a significant function. Worrying can prepare us for an uncertain future that prompts us to “stop worrying and start doing.” In this way, worry “resembles problem-solving in some respect,” according to Andrew Mathews.
The content of the concern is often legitimate. For instance, you are a salesperson. You need to make a minimum of ten monthly sales to cover your living expenses. As usual, you make the ten monthly sales and earn the available commission for each sale, but you have an unplanned expense. The unexpected expense took your monthly surplus and reduced your budget by twenty-five percent.
Alternatively, consider asking your employer for an advance, inquire about a personal loan at your bank, make payment arrangements with your creditors, or borrow the money from a family member. All of which seem like reasonable solutions. Although you are actively exploring answers to your budgetary concerns, the worry will likely remain because you will have an additional financial responsibility the following month. You may even have to work extra hours to increase your chances of making more sales. In the scenario presented, worry serves an adaptive function.
Researchers Kate Sweeny and Michael D. Dooley suggest worry can motivate people to take action to minimize the impact of adverse outcomes. They explain further that because worry keeps a potential problem front and center for the person, the person can actively consider finding solutions to the problem. Thus, promoting goal-directed behaviors and reducing the time and energy spent worrying.
Conversely, worry is not always adaptive. At other times worry’s subjective nature can lead to negative appraisals of environmental triggers, creating fear. Worrying can become exhausting and frustrating when it becomes excessive and affects your functioning. For example, your chronic worry results in avoidant behaviors. So, you begin to avoid people, places, and things because of your negative self-talk and the expectation something will go wrong.
When triggered, chronic worriers experience many of the symptoms associated with anxiety. Symptoms such as:
Increased heart rate
Queasiness or abdominal distress
Fear of losing control
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Shortness of breath
Numbness or tingling sensations
Worrying is about how we think and our interpretive bias of the events we experience. While we will not eliminate worry from occurring, there are things that we can proactively practice to curtail worrying from becoming chronic. We can learn to recognize:
Our worry is fueled by our automatic thoughts. These are the first thoughts that pop into our minds when we are triggered by an environmental cue. So, identify the trigger, the automatic thought, and work on creating a new thought by reframing it into an actionable thought that requires you to do something.
Categorize your worry into two groups, one that is solvable and one that is unsolvable. Solve the solvable and acknowledge the unsolvable by granting yourself “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.”
Practice the mindfulness exercise Leaves on a Stream.
Become aware of your interpretive bias that supports your negative thinking.
Remember, it is not abnormal to worry but worry becomes a problem if it becomes excessive.
Practice the “now” or “later” rule. Simplify things and address your more immediate worries. You can prepare for the “later” concerns by planning and executing your plan.
A little worry is normal; worrying becomes a problem when it becomes chronic, and you cannot reasonably resolve constant worry. The best antidote is to learn your triggers and warning signs for anxiety. Instead, exercise the opportunity to choose and narrow things down to a plan A and a Plan B.
Stay Naturally Curious.
Mathews, A. (1990). Why worry? The cognitive function of anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 28(6), 455-468.
Sweeny, K. & Dooley, M. D. (2017). The surprising upsides of worry. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4).