As we get older and look back on our lives, many of us will say, “I wish I’d worried less.” We recognize that worry wasn’t worth what it cost—the tension, poor sleep, irritability, fatigue, problems concentrating, and general unhappiness that go along with excessive worry. After all, most of what we worry about never even happens.
If worrying has so many drawbacks, why do we do it? When some outcome in the future is uncertain, we want to make sure it turns out well. Most of the time even after we’ve done all we can to prevent a bad outcome, we can’t eliminate the possibility that something could go wrong. Maybe it’s missing a flight, or getting sick, or messing up at work, or losing someone we care about. We don’t have ultimate control over whether these things happen.
If we have a hard time living with this uncertainty, we might return to the situation in our minds and keep turning it over, imaging every “what if” and how we might handle it. We’re trying to control an uncontrollable situation.
This mental behavior of worrying about uncertain future events is actually reinforcing. How can a mental state tied to so much anxiety be rewarding? Each time we worry and nothing bad happens, our minds connect worry with preventing harm:
Worry → Nothing Bad Happens.
The take-away is, “Good thing I worried” (which we probably aren’t aware of consciously).
On top of the self-perpetuating nature of worry, there are common beliefs about worry that compel us to keep doing it:
If I worry, I’ll never have a bad surprise.
Nobody likes to get blindsided by bad news, so we might worry to preempt disappointment. Unfortunately we can’t foresee every possible scenario, so it’s impossible to avoid upsets. In the meantime, how much are we suffering as we focus on a feared future?
It’s safer if I worry.
Our beliefs about worry can have a superstitious element, as we believe that the act of worrying itself somehow lowers the likelihood of a dreaded outcome. We might feel that if we stopped worrying we’d be inviting trouble. If we constantly worry, we never get to test out this belief to see if it’s true. Most of the time our worries are about as impactful as mentally “keeping the plane up” when flying in an airplane (assuming we’re not the pilot)—they only affect our minds.
I show I care by worrying.
We might tell ourselves that worrying says something good about us. After all, “I only worry because I care.” While this statement is probably true, we often turn it around and think, “If I didn’t worry it would mean I don’t care.” We need to distinguish between caring about a situation—including doing everything in our power to help it turn out well—and worrying needlessly and fruitlessly about it. If in doubt, we can ask our family members if they’d rather we worry or show we care in other ways.
Worrying motivates me.
It’s not uncommon to believe that if we stop worrying, we’ll become complacent or unproductive. You might think about a recent time you were gripped with worry. Can you imagine yourself being motivated to take care of the situation, even if you weren’t worrying so much? Again we need to differentiate between unproductive worry and productive concern and problem solving.
Worrying helps me problem solve.
Finally, we might tell ourselves that worrying is how we find solutions to our problems. However, extreme worry is more likely to interfere with problem solving. Once more we can notice the difference between productive problem solving and wheel-spinning worry. Consider these two modes in your own experience—how does it feel to be taking care of a problem versus worrying about all the What Ifs?
At this point a person might be thinking, “This is all well and good, but how am I supposed to worry less?” Let’s be honest: It’s really hard to stop worrying. It just is. It helps to have multiple tools to help us in the process.