Beating Anxiety: don’t kid yourself, worrying is not beneficial

Chronic worriers often tell themselves that worry is beneficial. The following is a short list of popular beliefs about the supposed benefits of worrying.

1)      Worry helps me find better solutions to problems.

2)      Worry motivates me to get things done.

3)      Worry protects me from negative emotions.

4)      Worry helps prevent negative outcomes.

5)      Worry is a sign that I care about an issue.

For anyone who struggles with constant worry any of these 5 beliefs may seem axiomatic. Personally speaking, I tend to fall into the first belief: “worry helps me find better solutions to problems.” It is an excuse I tell myself (and my wife) so that I can continue worrying without feeling the responsibility to quit. I recognize that worrying is a problem, but it is a formidable enemy. If I can somehow flip my relationship to it and make it into something positive (like some form of intellectual judo) then, voila, I win.

This is sheer delusion.

Not just this first one, but all 5 are delusional beliefs.

Worry does not help anyone find better solutions to problems, if anything it contributes to narrowing one’s vision and crushes creativity. Worry does not help anyone get things done, but rather drains vital energy needed to get things done. Worry is not protecting anyone from negative emotions, well… actually, it does temporarily, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Worry does not prevent negative outcomes, rather, similar to the first one, it can vastly increase negative outcomes. And worry is not necessarily a sign that one cares more about an issue, but is often a signal that one is concerned more with how one might be personally affected by an issue.

The truth is that worry, in almost every case is adding to a given problem, not helping to defeat it. This is true even with the third belief listed above.

People who spend significant amounts of time worrying can usually relate to the feeling that worry itself helps them cope with negative emotions; they might not know why, but worry often feels soothing, as ironic as that may sound to the non-worrier. In the short-term worry can indeed be a very effective way to dodge negative emotions; however, constant worry makes the long-term difficulties of managing emotions much, much more difficult.

This is because worry is self-perpetuating – the more one worries the more one feels the need to worry. This often culminates in what has been called “meta-worry,” that is, worrying about worrying.

The reasons for this have been the subject of much research over the past 2 decades. I will attempt to summarize one factor in the research which I believe is most beneficial for the reader who wants to overcome excessive worrying.

Research has shown that worry consists primarily of verbal/linguistic thought, something like an internal monologue (Dugas, Buhr, & LaDouceur, 2004). This should be distinguished from the process of having a mental image of something. A verbal/linguistic thought allows one to create emotional distancing from the thing one is thinking about. A mental image does just the opposite – it throws one into the reality of the thing; psychologically speaking, it is a face-to-face encounter with the thing imagined.

If the mental image is of something fearful it will usually create a somatic (bodily) reaction. Typically the mind will take great pains to avoid the sort of somatic reactions one experiences with a fearful image. There is a very primal connection between the body and death-anxiety, and, depending on a person’s experiences and emotional temperament, the image of something feared can trigger the body to react as if one’s extinction is immanent. In such a case the mind-body undergoes trauma.

The mind, on an unconscious level, will shift to worrying as a way to block this fearful encounter – instead of facing a threat head-on, worry kicks in with its verbal/linguistic distancing and temporarily holds the threat at bay (Butler, Wells, & Dewick, 1995).  This of course does not eliminate the threat, if anything it allows the threat to gain an even stronger foothold in the psyche, all the while preventing the person from developing the emotional capacity to handle the threat.

Stronger threat + less emotional growth = more reason to worry.

What are some proven methods of short-circuiting this process and gaining control over one’s emotions? Awareness of the mental process of worrying is a good start, hopefully this article has helped on that end. Practical methods of combating excessive worry will be the subject of my next article.

Thanks for reading.

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