As a child, I was told that I worried too much. My official family label was “worry wart.” That was my story. You, too, may have a family label as a worrier. Did that become your story, too? Costs and benefits exist in each of the stories we live by. Here are some thoughts on the costs and benefits of worrying.
My father used to say, “99% of the things you worry about never come to pass.” Those words were comforting – sort of. American neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), said it another way: “… we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors [that is, our worries] and uniquely foolish enough to…let them…dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold (p. 418).” I grew up, and the habits of worry followed me. I became curious about the function of worry and anxiety and how it worked in my life. As I better understood my relationship to it, I realized I had some choices to make. I began to rationally evaluate the costs and benefits of my worrying.
The National Institute of Mental Health says that occasional worry or anxiety is a normal part of life. Of course it is. Anxiety disorders, however, involve more than temporary fear or worry. Worry can develop into an anxiety disorder when it gets worse over time or doesn’t go away. It also may be considered an anxiety disorder if it causes troubles with our daily lives – such as school, relationships, or work. Severe anxiety – that lasting at least six months – may benefit from assessment and treatment by mental health professionals. Symptoms generally include excessive irrational fears and dread. Sapolsky wrote about how our biology and emotions are massively intertwined. There are “endless ways in which our personalities, feelings, and thoughts both reflect and influence the events in our bodies….” Bottom-line: Too much “…stress can make us sick… (p. 3).”
As I evaluated the costs of my worry, I could see that it kept me on the edge of my seat in a relatively constant state of upset. I too easily could create scary images for myself, filled with catastrophe. Those images were not healthy for my mind, my body, or my spirit.
What were the benefits? I noticed that worry protected and alerted me to dangers (e.g., I was too tired to drive). Or, less dramatically, it showed me things I simply needed to address (I needed to study for that exam). Too much anxiety isn’t always easy to overcome. Some of us are more genetically vulnerable to becoming anxious than others. Some of us grew up with anxious caregivers, who unwittingly taught us behaviors leading to irrational and unhealthy anxiety.
We each have unique psychological responses to stress. But regardless of our vulnerabilities, there are ways we can cope effectively with excessive anxiety. For me, a combination of coping strategies is helpful:
- Self-soothing (i.e., talking to myself in supportive ways)
- Thought-stoppage (a cognitive-behavioral technique)
- Distraction tactics (e.g., listening to opera or petting my dog)
- Tending my garden
- Repeating various mantras (e.g., “everything will work out”)
- Having faith in something bigger than me to help me.
These strategies are not always 100% effective. But using a combination of them often makes a significant difference. Oh, I still worry; but these days it is usually in much better check.
What are the costs and benefits of your worry or anxiety? What ways do you cope? What additional suggestions do you have for yourself, or for others, to reduce excessive worry?
For thoughts on costs and benefits of changing a major life story through illness, see psychology writer JB Allyn’s post, What I Lost and What I Gained by Revising a Major Story.
National Institute of Mental Health web page: Anxiety Disorders, May 2015
Sapolsky, Robert, (2004), Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
Note: In this post, the author, Diane H. Engelman, is not directly or indirectly giving psychological or medical advice. Nor is she prescribing the use of any technique to treat medical, physical, or emotional problems. The author intends only to offer information of a general nature that may assist you in seeking personal growth. If you choose to use any of the information the author presents, she assumes no responsibility for your choices or actions.