The People Who Worry about Worrying

The Science of Us

There are few things in this world more irritating than when people try to calm your anxious mind by telling you to “try to stop worrying.” Oh, you mean that’s how you do it? All I have to do to worry less is … worry less? If only someone had mentioned that sooner.

The unfortunate reality, as anyone who’s ever gotten caught in a worry spiral can attest, is that worrying is rarely something within your control. After all, it’s not like it’s fun — if you could change the scene in your brain to sunshine and rainbows at will, why on earth would you stick to running through potential worst-case scenarios?

Well, maybe because — sometimes, in small doses — worrying can actually be good for you. In one study, for example, worrying was linked to recovery from trauma and depression, as well as increased “uptake of health-promoting behaviors,” like getting regular cancer screenings or resolving to kick a smoking habit. Others have found that worriers tend to be more successful problem-solvers, higher performers at work and in graduate school, and more proactive and informed when it comes to handling stressful events that life throws their way.

All of which are pieces of evidence cited by a review paper recently published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Compass, titled “The Surprising Upsides of Worry.” Combing through several dozen previously published studies on the subject, authors Kate Sweeney and Michael Dooley, both of the University of California, Riverside — who defined worry in their paper as “aversive emotional experience that arises alongside repetitive unpleasant thoughts about the future” — argued that worry isn’t always a toxic presence or a waste of your emotional resources. On the contrary, it might be (hear them out!) something we should welcome into our lives.

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