Why Worry?

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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25 thoughts on “Why Worry?

  1. Sometimes just a word or several sentences can explain what something means for us and that is good, but in other cases, there are things such as this post where is inevitable to find just a word to explain our concerns about the good content that is in it.
    Why worry? I love the the first sentence of the paragraph three. It says, “Worry, then, has an important human function; it often signals to us that some action is needed.” I believe that worrying has an important part in our human function and I think that this has to happen in some ways. Sometimes we face certain problems in our lives where we might be worried about, but sometimes we worry for things that we SHOULD not, sorry I meant to say things that we do not NEED to worry about.

    We, people are very good advisers when others are going through any difficult situation and we might tell them that things will get better and so on, but when it comes to us, forget it!!! We are not the advisor anymore, again that is part of being human and that is fine, the problem is how long we will keep worrying about things and how serious we can take it. We have to be careful because doing things in excess can be bad for us.

    I love the third paragraph. I just laughed after reading about being attentive when walking alone. Nowadays, who is attentive? With the use of technology, including cellphones all around, sometimes (including myself, we take the wrong bus or miss it just because of all of our attention being on the phone). We are not being attentive and it SHOULD not be like that because things can happen to us, for example, we might be worry and say what if somebody takes my phone away? So the best thing to do will be putting it in a place where it will not be exposed to others, but do we care? Maybe not, instead we worry about it.
    On the other hand, as explained in the post, worries come to our stomach for many reasons and I think that it is not good at all. I have felt those worries in my stomach. I would like to know who else?

    Lastly, I find this post very powerful. The paragraph five is awesome. The example about the mother is great. It does not matter how old we might be, still parents care and worry about us. As described in the paragraph five “Caring and concern has a value, it can result in useful action.” Truly it does.
    I think that if at least we stop the worries a little bit, our mind will be happy and rest more.
    I hope we can implement this Swahili word in our lives

    HAKUNA MATATA:”Hakuna matata” is a Swahili phrase; translated, it roughly means “No worries”. It is formed by the words hakuna (there is not here) and matata (plural form of problem).

  2. Thanks Dr. Urban!
    Although, I appreciate my mother tremendously, you’ve just given me another reason to be grateful for her. She is the ‘Queen of Worry’ and now I thank her just a little bit more!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from this… Too often I worry… But to worry about a child.. is never ever a bad thing! It’s intuition. I can see you all nodding… Thank you. I feel good after reading this, and I relish the next installment!

  4. I agree a 100 percent !!

    I feel that worrying make you dynamic , You can be flexible with your emotions for yourself and others. being empathic is a awesome trait to have because giving a person a shoulder to lean on is kind , and you attract awesome people from being kind. it just all depends on how do you react to your worries . do you take it and use for something helpful , or do you make it control you !

    – Great blog !

    1. I like what you said of using worries as something helpful. The worries about people are good because as you say it is given a person a shoulder to lean in. Some people might feel loneliness, but when we show them that we care for them, truly it can make a difference. In some ways, the worries are similar to what it means to care. For example if we see people in need or going through a difficult situation, we can let them know that we worry about them; not telling them, but by the way that we are, so that they can count on us.
      It is different when we worry about others than when we worry about any issue in our lives. I don’t find any good in worrying, but still we worry.

  5. As a “worry wart” this article really hits home. We really do get a bad rap! It’s very true, though, that if I didn’t worry so much, necessary aspects of daily life will end up forgotten. I think worrying helps maintain order. I believe there has to be a balance, though. When considering relationships, worriers needs a non-worrier to balance the relationship.

  6. I think that this article is true because worry Helps to bring the best out of us. It helps us to define our capabilities of doing things as humans.

  7. Looking back am not proud to say I used to worry a lot to the point where i’d get sick for been so worried and anxious. Until I read somewhere worrying can make you vulnerable to everything from cancer to the common cold. I love living that thinking of causing an avoidable disease such as cancer was a wake up call for not worrying excessively. Going through challenges everyday which I felt were not possible yet got through them realize with time I could conquer and go through anything if not everything. Give whatever challenge or task time to get through it. I must say doing this ( giving myself time ) has allowed me to worry less or not worry at all whilst getting things accomplished. No matter the situation be it school, work, debt, relationship problems with time we’d get through them.

  8. I worry so much, literally about anything. Things that I shouldn’t, things that aren’t my problem, things that I know have no reason to be worried about. It caused me so much anxiety. But after reading and the way you’ve broken it down I think is amazing. It kind of makes me feel a little better and helps me understand the dynamics too it. It helps me understand the reason behind it like for example when you spoke about not having control.

  9. This artical is so on point with how you break everything down. I like the section where you talk about you explain worrying isnt all that bad. It makes me feel a little better about the whole concept since i am a worry freak

  10. The distinction between worry leading to action vs in action was well put. Some of us worry until it makes us sick but unable to explore solutions, like you said we count on others for at. I at times become very turn off by those who deal with worry in that manner because I am the worried person with a need for action. At times I wish I can be worry free or not have the urge to confront what I am worried about. Since I am who I am I guess I will continue to worry for others and take pride in owning my worry. Thanks for the insight.

  11. Still worrying. I think that a lot of people (including myself) worry a lot when final exams are about to come. We should be more relaxed and do not let those exams make us worry. Sometimes we just worry about things, but do not work in order to make things better. For example, sometimes we want to get good grades, such as A’s (which I love to get), but we don’t really study hard enough in order to get that grade,then we keep worrying and worrying and still having time to make things better,we don’t.
    I hope that worries do not get on the way of any student when finals come. Worrying can be good for certain things, but for other can be bad. Hakuna Matata!

  12. You are completely right in this post. I am a constant worrier but i don’t do anything about it. It is a positive trait if you get up and do something about and not just have it there causing you body physical and mental pain. Instead of worrying I’m going to get up and do something about it your post was very inspiring and i hope you keep on writing them.

  13. I loved this post! Mainly because I, myself, worry too much. I worry about literally everything. Over things I shouldn’t, things that aren’t my problem or have nothing to do with me, things that don’t even affect me directly. I’m not sure why I do this, I assume it is because I have zero patience and a very high level of anxiety. I do have to say though, after reading this post, I would rather worry like I do than not worry at all. I think worrying is a good thing partly because it keeps you on your toes and motivated. After reading the way you’ve broken down the concept of worrying is just wonderful. It eases my mind hearing your viewpoint and explanation as to why worrying is okay. Very often my friends call me “negative nancy” because I always look at the downside of things. I can see how this can be seen as a negative characteristic but I don’t think it is all that bad. I find that people who worry are realistic and logic about things more so than non-worriers. I found it funny when you classified the non-worrier as “irresponsible or immature, impulsive, and unable to see the realistic picture,” because this is so true and accurate. I totally agree that worrying does have value and result in useful actions. People might not notice, but not worrying about a thing in the world can bring people further apart rather than closer together. The value in worry brings about action quicker than not worrying at all. A good amount of stress is healthy in ones life. Although I might think I worry too much or stress too much over little things, I can say that I’ve accomplished everything I set out for so far in my life and I’m sure it has to do with all that worrying I did! I really enjoyed this post and reading about this topic!

  14. It is important to understand that everything in excess is bad. Being worried to the extreme can make someone very sick which is not good, because that means that the problem is controlling the person, having a worst result and consequences than expected, therefore; living a miserable life. Now if one can learn to manage worriedness with diligence, more than a burden worriedness then its going to become an opportunity to get better in many ways. In my opinion worries are not bad as they may be seen. They are the ones that motivate us to go and do something that is going to be beneficial to us, they are the ones that take us to the next step. Also when we are worried and we are seeking for solutions, they are the ones that make us find strengths that we ourselves did not even know that we have. In addition to this, when we are worried it means that something or someone is important to us. Being worried means that our lives have meaning and purposes. On the contrary, if we live our lives worried free means that we don’t care about anything and anybody showing by the lack of interest and concerns about nothing. I really believe that we all need worries in our lives because they help us to be better human beings and also makes us to act in ways that shows love for others

  15. So glad I read this specific blog out of all of your others. The title jumped out to me because I myself am a worrier. It was very relieving reading this blog. Thanks Dr.Urban!

  16. This post was so spot on In my spare time all i do is worry, so by reading this piece It got me to understand better why we worry and act the way that we do

  17. I really enjoyed this post because everyone thinks of worrying as a bad thing and in this post it makes us think about it in another way.
    As Jimmy Dean says “I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can change the direction of my sails to get to my destination.” I live by this motto because I believe worrying only complicates things more, I think that we shouldn’t worry about the things we can’t control or change. I believe if we word our concerns differently the entire conversation can change for both participants, but even though it may eliminate some concerns it will not eliminate all.

  18. This is a wonderful article that goes with the subject of worrying. From my upbringing, I have seen what worrying can do to a person or a family. As I have gotten older I even began falling under that way of worry, and one day I woke up. I had realized worrying is not going to change anything. If we could prevent worrying in the future, then we must work on it. Like preventive maintenance.
    Worrying is not always a bad thing, in my opinion. It can show how one cares or is compassionate toward something. Where it can become bad is if it effects ones self being.

  19. Ok, so I can definitely say that I used to be a worry wart! I know it caused me unnecessary anxiety and stress, but sometimes, I just couldn’t help it. I felt and still to this day feel that my worrying started when I became a single mother. I used to be consumed with worrying about caring for my children on my own. I would worry about things like my kids having very few male influences in their lives, what they may miss out on because they didn’t have two parents in the household, and most importantly, how was I going to do it all financially & mentally.
    Currently, I can say that all that worrying has somewhat paid off. Like the author of the article says, “worry is useful when it results in an action that makes something better.” I took steps to make things better. I relocated across the country, got a good job, enrolled in school, and formed new positive, supportive relationships.
    As I’ve gotten older, I don’t worry nearly as much as I used to or about the same things. I’ve learned that life is getting shorter and shorter by the day, so I have to just let some things go and progress naturally. Worrying used to be my main force of motivation, as it helped me succeed and reach goals I would have never thought possible. But these days, I just want to enjoy life and not stress myself out so much.

  20. Another great post that hits close to home. I refer to my fiancé in many posts but it is only because there are so many things I can relate to with our dynamic. She has always been since a young girl a “worry wart.” She has told me of the same things mentioned above such as people saying she is exaggerating or worrying for nothing. I myself have been guilty of this with her. Through the years though I have come to realize that the steps she takes to be careful or prepared in certain situations does in fact prevent mishaps to occur. Since we are opposite in that respect, I have given her a sense of fearfulness with certain worries she has and she has gained a new sense of strength in situations where she didn’t have it before. I, in turn have become more aware of consequences and learned to prepare more for certain situations. We both come from different sides of the spectrum and meet in the middle to find balance. There was a great analogy that she was told one day that stuck with her and relates to this post. It was that in the pre-historic times, those with “anxiety” or a heightened sense of “fight or flight,” were the ones who were at the first line of defense, which correlates to the above post where the worriers take on the burden of the worry. Without those whom carry worry or anxiety, it would leave the world open to potential dangers trying to get in.

  21. From one worrier to the other (if you are one I feel like you are). I feel that absolutely I only worry about things that are important to me. My girl friend tells me this all the time because I’m always worried about how things will effect others when meanwhile I should only be concerned with myself on the matter. I just am a person who puts their everything into most things I do so I’m also very passionate which I feel kind of goes hand in hand with being worrisome. Like for example I remember when I first started to drive as a teenager my mom would be so bent out of shaped worried and my dad would be like totally calm like he didn’t care but he would always throw in a line like “Be careful” or “Pay attention”. I feel like there is a Mom reaction in all of us when it come to certain things so to be worrisome over things we are passionate about or love is just a normal reaction to me.

  22. I really like this post! It is very powerful to realize how we can shape our state of mind and modes by the level of importance and type of “action or no action” that we give to our concerns which in some cases can cause severe stress and in other cases can relive stress by resulting in a useful reaction.
    It is good to read and see a bigger picture with great examples that makes us think how to canalize our worries, it is true there are worries and concerns that we have not control over it however we do have control of the effect those worries have on us, therefore I love the note at the end: 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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