Is Worry Useful?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It’s human nature to worry. Having spent a lot of my time lost in the depths of worry, I’ve often wondered if it’s actually useful.

When it comes to worries, I like to distinguish between spinning and solving. Spinning is when our minds weave their fearful futuristic “what ifs” and there’s really no productive or effective outcome. Our nervous systems take the brunt of the worrisome webs our minds spin and nothing really gets resolved.

Solving, as opposed to spinning, is when we bring conscious awareness to the content of our worries and determine if there’s something we can actually do to address the situation, either internally through self-compassion and soothing self-talk, or externally with some type of action or realistic preparation.

These days, there’s certainly no shortage of issues we could worry about—from personal to global. Besides being natural and completely understandable to worry about people and situations we care about, for the most part, worry doesn’t help us navigate difficult situations.

Thoughtful planning and action can help. Asking someone else for help can help. Offering support or resources can help. Sometimes, deciding to let go and focus on the present moment can help. And sometimes, asking an invisible force that’s bigger than our minds and the material world can help.

Author and teacher, Eckhart Tolle says, “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.”

Worry sure does pretend to be necessary and useful. In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with many people who struggle with worry— some part-time, some full-time. When we take a deeper look at their relationship to worry, I often notice a theme. A lot of people think that worrying will somehow protect them from or prepare them for painful situations that may or may not happen in the future. But does it really?

Worry doesn’t tend to prepare us for the future. It robs us of the present. Worrying is like trying to prevent something hard from happening in the future while causing something hard to happen in the present— worry. Worry is stressful and it’s hard work. We might tell ourselves that the right amount of worrying will help us get through a future hardship or disaster, but worry typically doesn’t have that kind of power.

I’m not suggesting that all worries could or should be ignored. Sometimes our worries are a natural result of care and concern and they need to be honored and met with compassion. Sometimes a worry might be indicating a need for an action step or a realistic preventative measure. If you’re worried about a physical issue, it might make sense to see a medical professional. If you’re worried about the state of your marriage, you might decide to see a couples counselor. If a big storm is predicted in your area, loading up on groceries and batteries might help, but worrying won’t. Unless you’re taking steps to actively do something about an issue or event that you’re worried about, worry isn’t actually helpful.

So, what does worry do? Worry makes our bodies feel as if the circumstances we’re worried about are actually happening, when in most cases they’re not. After experiencing my first big earthquake, I found myself frequently worrying about there being another one. Every little jolt, door slam, foot stomp, or thunderstorm sent me into a tizzy. Not to mention the quiet times my mind decided to get a jump on things and just plain worry without any noise or shake whatsoever. I realized after a while that if another earthquake actually happened, I wouldn’t have time to worry. I’d head to the nearest door or react in whatever way I managed to at the time. Worrying now won’t help me then. Canned goods, batteries, and bottled water might. But not worry.

So, I began to thank my mind for trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible future catastrophic quake. I began to reassure myself that I was actually safe in the moment. And, I continued my resolve to spend more time in reality and deal with life’s challenges when they actually arrived, rather than allow my mind to continuously create them in an ineffective attempt to prevent and prepare for them. Of course, like any change, this takes practice. It takes practice to have our wise, grounded, present selves be in charge rather than our primitive limbic systems. Fortunately, we get better at what we practice.

Even though worry feels like serious business, a sense of humor can help sometimes too. I remember a session with a client who was preparing to travel abroad for a few months. She was excited for the opportunity to travel, but she was also very worried about going off to a foreign country. She said, “I’m worried that my anxiety will ruin my trip.” Then she laughed and playfully said, “I’m worried about ruining my trip and I’m actually ruining my day by worrying about being worried!”

Another client was facing a frightening medical procedure. She spent months worrying about how much the procedure would hurt and how long it would take to heal. She worried about having to go through it all again if her condition didn’t improve. The dreaded day finally came and went. She later told me that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d anticipated. She talked about how many months she spent worrying about the pain compared to how many minutes the actual pain lasted and she was amazed. When she began to talk about how much time she’d “wasted” worrying, I told her that the time wouldn’t be a waste if she could use it as a reminder to stay more conscious of her mind movies. We made a plan for her to increase her awareness of when her mind began spinning out on worries. She could then soothe her worries, like she might soothe an anxious child. She could ask herself if there were any realistic action steps to be taken. And she could gently redirect her worried mind back to the present moment.

I think we can all use this lesson. We can deal with the challenging parts of life when they actually occur, or we can deal with them in our minds constantly and also when they occur.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of grist for the worry mill. Personally, I could lock and load my worry full-time if I’m not careful, conscious, and in charge of who’s steering this tender ship. But I am. I realize every day that worrying about war, climate, school shootings, health, or my loved ones is not going to keep something really hard from happening. Worrying only makes my nervous system feel like the hard things are happening now.

So, if you are a periodic or perpetual worrier, try asking yourself: Is this worry actually helping me or anyone else? Is there some action I could take to prepare for this worrisome possibility? Can I soothe my worried mind and encourage it to loosen its well-intended grip? Can I reassure myself that whatever challenges life brings, I will handle them in the best ways that I can at that time?

And then, ever so gently, reel ourselves back from the not-now and into now.

View on Psychology Today

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