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Why worry may not be a bad thing

Posted Mar 21 2013 5:00am

Do you worry too much or too little?

Worried!

Worried! (Photo credit: photoloni)

Self-help books and common wisdom tend to equate worry and anxiety. It would appear that the two are not the same thing and that sometimes a little worry can be good for you.

We saw in previous posts that words , especially words about feelings, do not mean the same thing to everyone. One person’s worry may not be another’s in the same way that my purple may be your fuchsia. While dictionary definitions make the definitions of worry and anxiety much the same, researchers think they are quite different and that sometimes worrying can be good for you.

Anxiety is about heightened awareness or hyper-vigilance. An anxious person is hypersensitive about things and may over react to things that have little or no real danger. In that sense anxiety is related to fear. Anxiety’s role is to keep us on the lookout and avoid things that might be dangerous.

Worry has the connotation of constant thinking about something. Researchers think anxiety and fear are more visual or emotional reactions while worry is a mental and verbal rumination.

Worrying about things can keep them on your mind and this can result in perpetuating fear and anxiety. But there can be good results from worry in addition to the bad ones if worry is not accompanied by excess anxiety or fear.

Think of worry as being like my very old computer. Sometimes my computer slows down because an operation takes a lot of CPU memory. I get those little warning messages in the corner of my screen saying high CPU usage by and it names a program that is using all that memory.

Worry does the same thing to my mind. It uses up a lot of memory capacity, thinking about the thing that is worrying me. The result is that I slow down on what I am doing and devote more of my thinking ability to the task of worrying.  At this point worrying is impairing my mental efficiency.

As my mind slows down and devotes more resources to the task that worries me, there is increased attention to that one thing and all other mental tasks are neglected. The result is that as a byproduct to worrying I may do fewer things but I am likely to devote more attention to the one thing I am worrying about. Worriers make fewer errors on the task they worry about as a result of that increased attention. So worrying can be useful in reducing error rates by having a task fully occupy your mind.

Worrying results in a trade off between the time needed to do the routine tasks I need to do and an increased accuracy as I try to avoid making any errors. If accuracy is imperative worrying makes sense.

Worry is not solely about the task or challenge I am facing, it is also about making plans, contingency plans for what I will do if – and here I may worry about both high probability occurrences as well as low probability ones.

As a result of all this worrying and contingent planning I may react to situations faster than someone who has not thought about this possibility at all. So if you might be faced with a sudden unexpected need to do something and the risk of making an error would be catastrophic, worrying may be just the ticket to allow you to make an instant lifesaving decision.

Worrying can be seen as a symptom of some mental illnesses. It is especially viewed as a process that maintains Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in the same way that nightmares maintain Posttraumatic Stress Disorder PTSD .)

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder then worrying is probably going to do you more harm than good. But if you are a relatively normal person and are faced with some really important life changing decisions than some worry, thinking through all the possibilities and what could go wrong may be just what you need.

If your worry has gotten out of hand, if you worry needlessly about small things and things that are very unlikely to happen then improving your worry ability is not for you. If excessive worry has interfered with your job or fun activities it is a problem. If your friends and family avoid you or are concerned about all the worrying you do, then you may need help sorting out what is important and what is just an unproductive loop of constant worry.

If you have a major life change coming then do a little worry and planning about what might happen and what you will need to do.

But if worry has gotten excessive and is making your life unhappy and out of control, consider getting some professional help for that out of control worry monster that has taken over your life.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com

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