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Don't Worry About Worrying

Worrying is a natural part of life. However, when you let it consume you, it can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. It can also prevent you from enjoying the moment and even damage your relationships.

At the same, worrying can be a powerful asset when used correctly. In fact, a little bit of worrying is actually good for your health and well-being.

Worrying can be motivating.

“Despite its negative reputation, not all worry is destructive or even futile,” states Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside in her article “The Surprising Upsides of Worry.” “It has motivational benefits, and it acts as an emotional buffer.”

“The motivational power of worry has been studied and linked to preventive health behavior, like seatbelt use,” writes Mojgan Sherkat for the University of California. “In a nationally representative sample of Americans, feelings of worry about skin cancer predicted sunscreen use. And participants who reported higher levels of cancer-related worries also conducted breast self-examinations, underwent regular mammograms, and sought clinical breast examinations.”

Similar findings were found in a study conducted by Shelly Smith-Acuña, Ph.D., professor and dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.

“Adaptive worry alerts you to dangers and threats, clarifies the problem, can lead you to seek help or more information from others, and then helps you solve the problem,” she explains. For example, if you’re worried about your health, you’ll be more likely to schedule frequent check-ups. Other examples include:

  • Worrying about your career. “Sometimes worry highlights legitimate problems with your job that you shouldn’t ignore,” explains Dr. Smith-Acuña. “Worrying can help you leave a bad job or at least get you to update your resume, ask for help, or seek other resources.”

  • Worrying about relationships. “If you listen to worry as a signal that your relationship needs to improve, it can help you revive the spark and fix it before things get too bad,” she says.

  • Worrying about safety. “Worry is a built-in instinct to help us assess our situation realistically,” Dr. Smith-Acuña explains. Just makes sure to limit your exposure. “With our 24/7 media coverage it can be hard to accurately gauge what is a real threat to us and what isn’t,” she says.

  • Worrying about food. “Food isn’t about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but about how it makes you feel,” she explains. “Take time to eat and enjoy your food, and pay attention to how what you eat makes your body feel; then aim to eat things that make you feel good.”

  • Worrying about your children. “Worry can help you tune in to your instincts because no one knows your child like you do,” says Dr. Smith-Acuña. “Information is your friend, so get educated about parenting and it will help you know when to worry and when to relax.”

  • Worrying about your family. “Worrying about your family relationships—mom, dad, siblings, extended family—can lead to a good open discussion about what’s going on with everyone,” Dr. Smith-Acuña says.

Sweeny adds that the reason why worrying is an effective motivator is because:

  • Worrying lets us know that a situation is severe enough for us to take action.

  • It “keeps the stressor at the front of one’s mind and prompts people toward action.”

  • Worrying is an unpleasant feeling, so we want to find ways to alleviate this uncomfortable

“Even in circumstances when efforts to prevent undesirable outcomes are futile, worry can motivate proactive efforts to assemble a ready-made set of responses in the case of bad news,” Sweeny said. “In this instance, worrying pays off because one is actively thinking of a ‘plan B.’”

Creates an emotional buffer.

“Worry can also benefit one’s emotional state by serving as an emotional bench-mark,” adds Sherkat. “Compared to the state of worry, any other feeling is pleasurable by contrast. In other words, the pleasure that comes from a good experience is heightened if preceded by a bad experience.”

“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,” Sweeny said.

Research shows that preparing for the “worst provides indirect evidence for the role of worry as an emotional buffer,” writes Sherkat. “As people brace for the worst, they embrace a pessimistic outlook to mitigate potential disappointment, boosting excitement if the news is good. Therefore, both bracing and worrying have an emotional payoff following the moment of truth.”

“Extreme levels of worry are harmful to one’s health. I do not intend to advocate for excessive worrying. Instead, I hope to provide reassurance to the helpless worrier — planning and preventive action is not a bad thing,” Sweeny said. “Worrying the right amount is far better than not worrying at all.”

It strengthens relationships.

In healthy relationships, worrying can be beneficial in improving them. Why? It not only shows that you care, but it also makes others feel safe around you. And, because you’re not suppressing your emotions, you won’t let relationship anxiety or insecurities get in the way of maintaining a healthy relationship.

It’s a sign of intelligence.

As reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences it’s believed that worrying can also be a sign of a specific type of intelligence.

126 students were given surveys and questionnaires that measured both their intelligence and their tendency towards stress. After analyzing the results, researchers at Ontario’s Lakehead discovered that there was a connection between worrying and verbal intelligence.

How to stop worrying.

While worrying does have it’s benefits, you also don’t want it to completely take over your life. Thankfully, there are simple ways to prevent this from happening.

Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. recommend on HelpGuide, you can control your worried mind by:

  • Scheduling a “worry” period. Select a specific time and write them down to get them out of your head. If there are still troubling you, block out a brief period of time to worry about therm.

  • Challenging your anxious thoughts. During your “worry” period, asks yourself what’s true and reframe it in a more positive view.

  • Distinguishing between solvable and unsolvable problems. If you can solve your worry, brainstorm realistic ideas on how to make this possible. If it can’t be solved, accept that and move on.

  • Interrupting the worry cycle. Stop what you’re during and direct your attention elsewhere, such as going for a walk, meditating, or deep breathing.

  • Talk about your worries. Verbalize your worries with others so that they can offer possible solutions.

  • Practicing mindfulness. Because worrying is focused on the future, you want to bring yourself back into the present by practicing mindfulness.

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