Science has some good news for worriers

Jun 5, 2017

Whatever it is that you’re fretting about, here's a bit of good news: Worrying can be beneficial, under certain circumstances.

Dr. Kate Sweeney, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of new research on the upside of worrying, says it serves a few useful functions.

“The most important function that worry serves is that it acts as a motivator,” Sweeney says. “It essentially tells us there is something we should be doing. And it gives us the motivation to do it.”

Some studies also show that people who worry about getting into a car accident are more likely to wear their seat belts, and people who worry about getting skin cancer are more likely to wear sunscreen, Sweeney points out. Worry helps in another way, too: It’s so unpleasant that it makes other emotional experiences feel not so bad in contrast.

“I’ve done studies with law school graduates who are waiting to find out if they passed the bar exam,” Sweeney says. “The ones who worry a lot while they’re waiting feel not so bad when they fail. And they feel extra great when they pass.”

On the other hand, worry has some pretty serious downsides, Sweeney hastens to add. “It can lead to a depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep disruption, even problems with our physical health,” she says.

The key, she believes, is to try to “make sure that worry is actually helping instead of overwhelming you,” according to Sweeney. “For example, when I worry, I kind of go through a mental checklist. Is there anything I could be doing to make sure that bad outcomes don’t come my way, and even if they do, that I might be a little bit more prepared for them? If the answer to that checklist is, ‘Nope, I’ve done everything I possibly can,’ all I can really try to do is to distract myself and try to keep my worry at a manageable level.”

On the flip side, of course, are those for whom a bit more worry might be useful. “They’re so laid-back that they might not take preventive action to make sure that things go well. They may not plan fully,” Sweeney explains. “And worse, they might be really caught off guard if bad things do come their way, which no one is immune to.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

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