When You Believe Worrying is Positive
Worrying is a dysfunctional coping strategy based on emotion. Not only does it fail to solve problems, but it also inhibits the flow of realistic solutions. In today's article, we'll talk about why we worry.
The frenetic pace of our lives has made worrying a part of our day-to-day existence. That inner voice constantly reminds you that you “must” do it all. And not just get it done but do it perfectly. The idea that you’re supposed to be a superhero inevitably leads to worrying about what’s going on around you. You want to be able to control everything. Since that’s impossible, you worry. This kind of thinking so deeply permeates our culture that many people believe worrying is positive.
Worrying about something might give the illusion that you have some control over it. However, this isn’t true.
When you worry too much, you feel anxious. That anxiety stems from the idea that it’s actually possible to control the world around you. Not only that which actually has some kind of solution, but also situations that aren’t real or that are impossible to control. Worrying becomes a tool that somewhat mitigates your fear in the short-term. However, it’s unproductive in the long-term.
Worrying is useless
Think about all the times you’ve worried about something going on in your life. Did worrying make the situation go away or help you solve it? Does worrying actually help you control your life, other people, or even yourself? Why do we think that worrying is positive?
If you reflect on these questions, you’ll quickly realize that worrying is essentially useless. Worse than useless, it leads to a vicious and endless mental loop. On the other hand, dealing with something is entirely different. It involves thinking critically about the problem at hand, identifying what decisions have to be made, and coming up with solutions.
While it’s true that worrying is a somewhat “natural” process, it’s also true that many people take it to the extreme. Psychologists have identified the diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is a fairly accurate description of people who worry excessively.
People with GAD worry about the same things as other people but with a disproportionate intensity, frequency, and duration.
Everyone worries at some point. Let’s say you’re worried about how your daughter is doing at her new job, for example. People with GAD let their worries define their reality and they behave accordingly. This is detrimental to their relationships and their day-to-day lives.
If I’m excessively worried about how my child is doing at their new job, I’ll probably call her several times to check on her. Is that functional? Is it a good idea to repeatedly bother someone who’s just starting a new job? Will calling her help me control the situation?
Dealing with a situation is very different. You could call your daughter with some advice about the working world or check-in at the end of the day to see how things went and if she has any questions.
Rethinking these kinds of worries is the first step to becoming aware of how worrying has no effect on reality. Worse, it gets in the way of the normal flow of things.
Why do we worry?
People worry excessively because we’ve been taught since we were young that worrying is positive. If you aren’t worried about something, people accuse you of being careless or apathetic. No one wants that label, so you adapt this dysfunctional behavior to seem more responsible or a “good” person.
People who are always worried about something use this particular coping method for a few reasons:
Why we worry
- They believe that worrying solves problems. In reality, as we mentioned above, worrying is actually a huge barrier to problem-solving. Instead of coming up with solutions, we get trapped in cycles of rumination, which is exhausting.
- Worrying is an avoidance tactic. When you worry about something, it helps you avoid things that you fear. That’s essentially an illusion, however, because whatever you’re afraid of probably isn’t going to happen anyway. Worrying doesn’t affect that probability.
- They think that worrying helps motivate them to do what they need to do. But this isn’t true, as worrying is tiring and takes energy away from productive behavior.
- They think that worrying helps prepare them for the worst. “The worst” might not happen. If it does, worrying about it won’t prepare you in any way. If it doesn’t happen, you’ve wasted long periods of time ruminating about a problem that never existed.
- Worrying keeps negative situations at bay. Worrying is a mental state that doesn’t affect reality. Believing that you can affect the external world by worrying is an example of magical thinking.
- They believe that worrying about everything is a personality trait. “Worriers” often think that they worry because they’re responsible, well-intentioned, or kind. If they didn’t worry, they’d be overcome by guilt and just exchange one emotion for the other. They choose to worry. However, neither emotion is productive. Worrying can’t prevent the negative things you have in mind and guilt won’t solve past issues.
Treatment for people who think that worrying is positive
People who worry “normally” should reevaluate their fears in a more realistic way. They can also come up with an action plan to solve their problems.
People with GAD, however, can’t stop worrying on their own. In fact, they often start worrying about worrying too much (meta-worry).
Although we won’t get into it in today’s article, the best treatment for GAD involves understanding that worrying doesn’t serve the purpose that it seems to. On the other hand, the goal of behavioral therapy is to limit the mental time and space you have available for worrying. With the right guidance, someone with GAD can learn to stop assigning value to their worries and, instead, engage in productive behaviors, rooted in the real world.