Worry gets a bad name. It is often considered a fault, a personality characteristic to be “fixed” or removed. There are hundreds of quotes that warn us about the uselessness of worry. Psychologists, myself included, help people minimize their worrying and anxiety. The question that haunts me is: If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind?
One value is that worriers are often very empathetic people: they can put themselves in the place of others, are able to allow themselves the risk of feeling someone else’s pain, they are smart, they are often aware of risks that others do not see, or choose to block out. Worriers allow the rest of us to not worry; they take on that burden for us. We criticize them and then rely on them for the very things we choose not to worry about – having a tissue, a bandage, a pin to hide the fact that we lost a button. We criticize them for worrying about the bigger things too – but when they continue to point out the issues (you know, like worrying if you’ll make your flight in enough time or, even larger, worrying about climate change), eventually they show us the path to a solution to the problem.
Worry, then, has an important human function; it often signals to us that some action is needed. This, I think, is part of the answer. Worry is useful when it results in an action that makes something better. What actions are possible? Actions that change the situation, or actions that change our attitude about the situation. Worry has a bad name because it is connected, in some way, to not being able to control the situation that is worrying us. So, worrying about a potential accident seems useless – until we realize that if we control our actions (wear safe shoes, drive safe cars, be attentive when walking alone), or our attitude (“I do all I can to be safe”), then the worry results in something we can control and something that, therefore, has a value. When worry results in no change of action or attitude, it is a negative trait. When it results in action, I am suggesting that it is (although it’s hard for me to admit) a positive trait.
The idea that worrying is not all bad will be quite a relief for worriers because worriers often suffer. They feel it physically. Their hearts race, their pupils dilate, their perspiration increases, and their digestion stops (they feel it in their stomach – they feel nauseous or feel like they need to defecate). They feel it emotionally, dreading that something awful has happened or will happen. Their worry can reduce their personal happiness. It can impact their relationships. The criticism they receive and the teasing about their anxious state wears them down and separates them from others.
I am proposing that the non-worriers of the world pause for a moment to consider the fact that worry, when it flows from caring and concern, has a value. It can result in useful actions. It is something that can bring people closer together rather than further apart. For that to happen, non-worriers have to hear the issue being presented and respond to the issue – not to the assumptions we make about the worrier or the reason they are worried. This dynamic often comes into play in the interactions between parents and adult children, partly because, no matter how old the children are, and no matter how aware parents are that their children are fully grown, very capable, independent, and self-sufficient adults–for most parents, their children will also always be their babies. For example, an intelligent, young, single woman, very successfully living on her own in NYC, tells her mother that she met a young man online, and she’s made plans to meet him for drinks. The mother and daughter engage in a script that is familiar to both of them. (A script is a mental picture of the behaviors that are expected in a situation). The mother asks for details about him: What’s his name? How old is he? Where does he live? What does he do? Where does he work? Phone number? No matter that the daughter has undoubtedly already discovered and evaluated a great deal of basic information about the young man—the worrying mother thinks, “he could be a serial killer!!” The assumptions the young woman makes during this exchange probably include: (1) my parent doesn’t trust me, (2) my parent thinks I am still a child, (3) my parent is such a nag, (4) my parent is just crazy!! Such assumptions easily result in frustration, anger, and/or an argument. If the young adult assumes instead that the worry is a sign of love, and realizes that the worry is in part based on real (although, thankfully, rare) dreadful events on the news, then the result can be a very different response. Possibly something like, “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.” If the young adult says, “I love you too, and I’ll text you when I get home” it really changes the conversation. Instead of arguing about how the parent is always nagging or how the young adult is immature or irresponsible, the conversation ends with an emotional connection.
Additionally, couples often consist of a worrier and non-worrier. They also engage in scripts. For example, the non-worrier often tells the worrier that they are being “ridiculous” – there is no cause for concern, they are exaggerating the danger, they are negative and take the joy out of “everything”. The worrier, in turn, finds the non-worrier irresponsible or immature, impulsive, and unable to see the realistic picture. Often, the non-worrier tries to hide their real concerns, thinking if they express any concern at all, it will put the worrier “over the edge.” This script, however, only increases the worry because the worrier finds this “cavalier” attitude cause for concern because it indicates that the non-worrier is making absolutely no effort to control the dangers. The worry increases, the physical reaction to it increases, the emotional reaction increases, making the worrier even more concerned. This, in turn, increases the efforts of the non-worrier to minimize the perceived dangers. This script escalates the problem rather than addresses it. It is much more productive for the non-worrier to acknowledge the concerns brought up, address how they are being handled (making the worrier feel that the dangers are at least somewhat controlled), and end with “I understand your concern, but I have this. I’ll be careful.”
I am not unrealistic. This small change in script is not going to change the entire dynamic between a worrier and a non-worrier. It is not going to eliminate the unpleasant physical reaction to worry. It will not eliminate all annoyance in the non-worrier. But it will change something (and that is the point of worry). It will change the relationship because when the young adult leaves after addressing the worry, the parent is forced to see him/her as “responsible” and “mature” and worried about their own safety and the happiness of the parent. The parent eventually (hopefully) sees less need for worry. It will change a couple’s relationship by helping each partner acknowledge (and hopefully understand) the other’s concern (and lack of concern).
Now for those big worries, like climate change and getting robbed and cars being hacked into while we are driving…well those worries need to result in a change too. We need to listen to these concerns with an appreciation for the importance of worry, the importance of preparedness, and the focus on concern for humankind. If we assume that the worriers have our best interests at heart, the conversation that follows will certainly be a more productive one.
So, to return to my opening question – If worrying is so bad, why do we all do it? What value does it have? What does it do for us as individuals and as members of the collective of humankind? The value of worry is in its potential to move us toward action when action is needed.
Diane Urban, PhD
“I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can change the direction of my sails to get to my destination.” ~ Jimmy Dean
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