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Worry: What is it Good For?

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Absolutely nothing? (No.)

First things first, what is worry? When we're worrying, we're normally thinking a lot about something that might go wrong in the future. Often, we're trying to prepare for bad things that might happen. Worry often involves "what if" thinking like "what if I get sick and die," "what if I can't pay my bills this month," "what if my friend is super offended by what I just said."

Worry is not a feeling. Worry is something you do.

Worrying is what is called a "covert behavior." It's not a feeling, and it's not an automatic thought. It's something you're actually doing, inside of your head. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Stimulus. Something brings a worry on, like a news story, a late bill in the mail, or a random email.

  2. Automatic thought. There is usually an almost-imperceptible interpretation of the stimulus that comes next. "The world is collapsing," "I'm not going to be able to pay this bill," "Oh no, my friend sounds angry in this email."

  3. Feeling. The sensations of anxiety (or maybe another feeling, like sadness) start creeping in.

  4. Worry. This is the phase where worry shows up - in response to these feelings, you start doing something - worrying! Worry is an attempt to respond to that stimulus with planning and preparation, or sometimes it is an attempt to distract you from sadness or another emotion. For example, if you start worrying about the costs of the funeral after a loved one dies, sometimes the worry is an attempt to avoid sadness.

Worry can be useful.

There is always a reason human beings do what they do, literally always. Every behavior has a function. Worry is what we do when we are trying to solve a problem by thinking it through. It is a good idea to worry when you get a late notice for a bill in the mail, because you might start thinking of the risks involved with continuing to put this off. This might motivate you to ask a family member for some financial help, or start doing some extra work in order to make ends meet.

Worry can be so wise when it's harnessed well.

Worry can also be very un-useful.

The problem is when worry does not result in effective problem solving, or when worry continues even after it's clear that there is no way to prepare fully for an uncertain future. Worry that is not helping you reach your goals is pulling you away from the present moment and further from the life you want to live.

Worrying a lot is also pretty physically taxing. It's bad for your heart, it makes your body uncomfortable, and it makes it harder for your body to recover from stress. If you can learn to pull yourself away from unhelpful worry, you'll very likely feel a lot better.

But I literally can't stop worrying?

Yeah, for folks who are prone to worry, it often feels as automatic as breathing. That's alright, even very automatic behaviors can be changed. It takes a lot of practice, and often requires some good, evidence-based therapy.

Here's one trick - when you catch yourself worrying, ask yourself two questions.

1) Is this a problem that can be solved?

2) Is all of this thinking leading to a useful plan?

Try to shift the way you are worrying so that the answers to these questions can be "yes."

If there is no way to make those answers "yes," you may need to sit with your feelings for a bit. Try noticing what feeling you're trying to avoid by worrying. See if you can name and allow the feeling instead - "this is fear," "this is sadness." Watch it rise and fall within you. Then, decide what you'd rather be doing with your time than worrying. Maybe it's a good time to take a walk outside, call a good friend, or think about what you're grateful for instead.

If you're in need of more than that, it might be helpful to find a therapist who offers either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for anxiety. All psychologists at the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic of Atlanta would know exactly how to help.


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