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.
Here’s why it gets a bad rap.
This one’s fairly obvious: It’s unpleasant. Too much worry can manifest itself as irritability, trouble sleeping, or full-on anxiety; even in its milder form, it’s distracting, at the very least. As University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has explained, worrying is “like doing two things at once” — it sucks up so much of your mental energy that it can be impossible to actually focus on what’s happening in front of you.
In one 1996 study in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research, a team of psychologists asked volunteers to list all the ways that worrying had a negative impact on their lives. Among the top answers: It’s a distraction, it makes problems seem bigger than they really are, and (I’m paraphrasing here) it’s a crappy experience. And a sneakily sticky one, at that: Even when people try to suppress their worry, research has shown, it eventually comes bouncing back at full force.
Worrying can be motivating.
If shoving negative thoughts aside doesn’t work, though, at least you can try to use them for good instead of evil. “A substantial body of evidence suggests that worriers are onto something when it comes to worry’s benefits,” Sweeney and Dooley wrote. In the same 1996 study, when participants were asked to list the positive effects of worrying, they came up with a few not-insignificant ones: It makes them better planners, pushes them to think more analytically, and pushes them to be more conscientious versions of themselves. (That last one is especially true when it comes to health-related habits. Worriers, the paper noted, are more likely to have safe sex, wear sunscreen, and buckle their seat belts.)
The logic there is pretty straightforward. If you’re stressed about a certain scenario — say, a preventable STD — you’re going to be vigilant about making sure it doesn’t happen. But there’s another, more subtle layer in there, too: Active worriers, the authors note, don’t just take steps to reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes; they also take steps to reduce their own need to worry. “For example, worry about the outcome of a job interview might prompt people to spend a few extra hours preparing for the interview while also looking for other open positions,” they wrote, “and these proactive efforts may in turn mitigate worry about the interview’s outcome.” It’s like the opposite of a vicious cycle — the more you worry, the more you plan, the less worried you actually need to be.
Worrying can soften the emotional blow of a bad outcome.
Even when things don’t go your way and the thing you feared has come true, at least you’re prepared for it; for a constant worrier, bad news is rarely a total shock. And on the flip side, if things do turn out okay in the end, all that time you spent worrying makes a pleasant surprise that much more so: “Worry can also directly benefit one’s emotional state by serving as an affective low‐water mark,” Sweeney and Dooley wrote, “compared to which any other state seems pleasurable in contrast.”
Think of it as defensive pessimism. The world throws a lot of crap your way; it’s never a bad idea to have some emotional armor. That’s where worry comes in: Done right, it’s a shield between real life and all the scary things you imagine.