Getting sucked into a vortex of worry is pure hell. Besides the emotional torture, it can make you irritable, restless, tired, depressed, achy, or nauseous. But worry itself isn’t all negative. In fact, in small doses, it has some surprising upsides. In a new paper published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Compass, psychologists from the University of California, Riverside explain why we should stop worrying so much about worry and, yes, even embrace it.
According to lead author Katharine Sweeny, worry is a “toxic combination of anxiety, repetitive thoughts, and not being able to stop focusing on something specific happening, typically in the future, or a certain outcome.” If you’re constantly worrying, it can take its toll on your brain and body and paralyze you from moving forward. “When worry gets out of control, it can lead to trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and physical health problems,” she says. “But some level of worry is healthy. People often judge it too harshly because they’re not aware it can be useful.”
One key way worry works in our favor is by motivating us to take action. “If you’re worried, it probably means there is a risk of something bad occurring,” Sweeny says. “So it draws attention to the fact that there is something you should be doing. It serves the purpose of saying, ‘Hey, you may want to take care of that.’ ”
If you have some degree of control over whatever it is you are worrying about, those fretful feelings may lead to protective or preventive actions, Sweeny says. For example, if you worry about having a car accident, you’re more likely to wear your seatbelt. If you’re scared about skin cancer, you’ll wear sunscreen. If you’re worried you won’t have enough time to finish that project by Friday, you’ll start early.
In situations that are totally out of your control, such as waiting to receive test results or to hear if you aced or botched a job interview, worry might motivate you to prepare for potential outcomes. “My research has shown that when women undergoing biopsies are worried, they start telling key family members about the test, check their work leave policies, or review their health insurance status,” Sweeny says. “Doing these things won’t change the outcome, but they might make you more ready for it. They might soften the blow a bit.”
Worry can also serve as an emotional buffer. “Worry is often so unpleasant that other negative emotional experiences seem not so bad in comparison,” Sweeny says. “If you’re freaking out and just can’t stop, no matter what happens, you can at least be relieved you won’t have to worry anymore. People often say they don’t care if it’s bad news — they just want to know so they can stop worrying about the unknown.”
Regardless of worry’s benefits, it still feels shitty, so it’s natural to want to quash it. Sometimes you can. “Run a mental checklist to see if there’s anything you can do to prevent or prepare for a bad outcome,” Sweeny says. “If you determine there isn’t, try to distract yourself — socialize, exercise, or do anything that’ll get you out of your head. I know that’s easier said than done, but getting your mind off of it is really the only thing you can do.”
With all this in mind, don’t panic the moment you feel worry creeping in. Instead, accept the feeling, take inventory of your situation, and do what you can do to address it and keep it from spiraling out of control. And if you notice a loved one worrying, whatever you do, don’t tell them just to chill. “Is there anything more annoying than when someone tells you to relax?” Sweeny asks. “That does not help and it invalidates your experience. All people worry about certain things.” Just remember the upsides.