Worry makes us miserable and uncomfortable, but many worriers claim it keeps them prepared and safe from harm. And in a way, it does, but not in the way you’d think. Is it possible to stop worrying? What if worry is part of who you are?
You know you’re a worrier if you live by Mad Eye Moody’s exhortation for “constant vigilance!” Or if you identify with the heroes of Disney’s oddly recurring theme of anxious fish: Flounder from The Little Mermaid or Marlin from Finding Nemo. Or if you relate to Fear from Inside Out. But that one’s almost too easy.
Regardless of which worrier you relate to, you’re in good company. One-third of Americans will struggle with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. That’s over 100 million of us.
For something so common, worry is somewhat of an enigma. Sometimes worry can seem like the good guy—we credit it with helping us to get motivated, stay on top of things, and have a plan B and C and D ready to go. Indeed, for those of us wired to worry, anxiety is familiar and oddly reassuring.
But more often, anxiety is the bad guy. We can’t turn off our brain. We lie awake long after it’s time to wind down, get stuck in our heads when we should be in the moment, and overthink everything from our career path to whether or not we should pay thirty cents extra for an organic onion.
Worry is also exhausting. Worry’s partner in crime is physical tension—show me someone who worries and I’ll show you someone with back pain, GI problems, a clenched jaw, or chronic headaches.
If that isn’t enough, the way we cope with worry can exacerbate the problem: stress eating, bugging our partner for reassurance, frantic attempts to distract ourselves. Even our healthy coping can get hijacked by worry: “Am I doing meditation right?” “Does this pacing count as exercise?”
So why on earth do we bother? Why does your mother-in-law fret about everything? Why does your boyfriend freak out over nothing? Why do we worry so much?
Why We Worry
No one would call worrying a hobby, but it’s definitely an activity. An invisible activity, but something we do nonetheless. It’s hard to get stuff done if we’re worrying. You might do it instead of sleeping, or you might do it instead of being present in the moment.
So why do we put so much time into it? Well, worry serves a very important purpose. It allows us to avoid our negative feelings.
Do you know someone who, when criticized, gets angry instead of hurt? Or someone who, when they hear bad news, feels guilty instead of sad? It’s common to swap one negative emotion for another one that’s easier to deal with. As unpleasant as anxiety is, it’s often preferable to feeling other negative emotions like grief, shame, sadness, or despair.
A slightly different interpretation comes from a study in the journal Behavior Therapy, which posits that worriers are hypersensitive to jolts of negative emotion. Worry acts as a buffer. It shrinks the jarring and excruciating gap worriers have to bridge between feeling good and feeling bad, but it also keeps them in a state of constant negativity
Rather than feel good and be blindsided with uncomfortable negative emotion when the other shoe inevitably drops, worriers can stay in a prepared state of low-level distress. It’s protective, even if it’s uncomfortable.
In other words, worry is the rock that goes skipping over the surface of Lake Catastrophe rather than sinking into the depths.
With that, how can we stop worrying? Here are three tools of varying power. First, I’ll give you a can opener. Next, I’ll give you a cordless drill. And then we’ll end with a big old chainsaw.